Nikon Announces Second FX Body


Pros Get Christmas in July

original: 7/1/08

Yes, another new Nikon body to discuss. And discuss we must, as there's a lot implied by Nikon's latest announcement.

It should be obvious that we now have three specification levels in Nikon DSLRs:

  • D## -- DX-based consumer models
  • D### -- crossover models that appeal to aspiring amateurs and pros
  • D# -- pro bodies

Sometimes we get an h (high speed), x (high resolution), or s (revised) suffix, but the basic naming is D followed by a one-, two-, or three-digit number. Frankly, I've always found this a slightly confusing and cumbersome system of naming. The number of numbers in the name isn't well organized (Canon gets this closer to right, with 1 digit being top end cameras in a line, 2 digits being lower specified, and so on, all the way to four digits). The problem, as I see it, is the classical marketing one: do those folks at Big Box Chain and Joe's Camera Emporium selling your product fully understand how your product line is set up and can they adequately and accurately convey that to customers?

Perhaps. Nikon appears to be sticking to the same naming scheme they've used in the past, which helps, of course. Still, jumping from 300 to 700 and DX to FX seems like a leap that's likely to cause confusion, at least short term. And it makes you wonder what the D400, D500, and D600 are. DX? FX? What?

So once again I have to say that Nikon's lack of clearly presenting a broad outline of future plans is going to cause some cognitive dissonance to their marketing. They could have simply said that they'll continue the DX type of camera upward and the FX type of camera downward, and all would have made a bit more sense. Instead, users have to guess at future plans and wait for another model to explain the naming system to them better. I'll bet some users will sit out waiting to see what FX body comes below the D700, or whether the DX line continues to extend upward.

So I have a message to Nikon: Release a statement at least saying something like "For the foreseeable future we will continue to expand and improve our DX line with a range of models from entry level to low-end pro, and as you can see, we've begun to extend our FX line from the original and groundbreaking D3, and will do so upwards and downwards. We intend to serve both the DX and FX customer base with a range of models."

Is that really so hard to do? It doesn't commit Nikon to anything other than continuing to deploy DX cameras, does it, but it makes things clear that they will. What I'm hearing from a lot of folk is a worry about the opposite: that Nikon is trying to move to FX-only. This is trickier than it at first seems. Consider the potential customer who can afford a D300 and keep his or her current DX body for backup. If they think that DX is nearing the end of the line, they wait (and worry that prices may creep out of their range). I know that Nikon knows about price elasticity of demand. A US$2999 body specified like the D700 is not going to sell as many units as the similarly-specified D300 at US$1699. But if the potential US$1699 customer is worried about the life expectancy of that product, they don't pull the trigger on either model. And that's a shame, because the D300 is more than enough camera for most people, and produces excellent photos under most conditions.

But I haven't talked about the new products yet, so let's do that before I bore you to death with my Nikon marketing woe stories.

First, let's take a closer look at the D700.

Take a D3, put it in a smaller body, do some clever cost-cutting but modest feature changes, lower the price to US$2999, and you've got a D700. It's that feature-changes-versus-price thing that has a lot of people scratching their heads. Basically, the D700 gives up a built-in vertical grip, super high frame rates, 5:4 crop, 100% viewfinder, while gaining a built-in flash, yet drops US$2000 in price. Most people can't quite get the math to add up. It doesn't. Clearly Nikon wants to push a hefty number of D700's out the door (and have been preparing the Sendai plant to do just that). Indeed, for the shooter who doesn't need state-of-the-art frame rates or massive pixel counts, the D700 just became the camera of choice, I think. It's basically everything a D3 is without a few of the finely-polished bits.

Curiously, Nikon now has three professional 12mp DSLRs that fill out an interesting price/performance chart:

Price Point
What it is
Adds
Subtracts
US$1649 12mp DX frame, 6 fps (8 fps optional) -- --
US$2999 (+82%) 12mp FX frame, 5 fps (8 fps optional) FX frame, high ISO capability, weight Frame rate, 100% viewfinder
US$4819 (+60%) 12mp FX frame, 9 fps (11 optional), grip included 5:4 crop, higher frame rates, 100% viewfinder, integrated vertical grip, weight, size Internal flash, sensor cleaning

As you can see you're mostly paying for frame size and frame rate, with some minor stuff thrown in.

What's not to like? The things Nikon removed from the D3 aren't deal breakers for most shooters (and you can always add the MB-D10 if you want a vertical grip and the ability to use those longer-lasting-than-you-need EN-EL4a batteries and a higher frame rate). The addition of the flash is a huge plus, especially for those of us who like to use wireless flash. Twelve megapixels is enough for most users, and the D700 sensor is clearly state-of-the-art at almost any ISO value. If you're in the desktop inkjet realm for output, 12mp is more than enough. D3 images at 13x19" out of my Epson R2400 look amazingly good at pretty much any ISO through 3200. Do you really need more?

The problem is the missing D3x. By introducing the D700 (D3 Jr) without also introducing the D3x, there's temporarily a bit of worry in the pro ranks. Basically, we have three 12mp pro cameras (D300, D700, and D3) and nothing else. Choosing which one to lock onto as your base is actually tougher than it seems, as it depends upon what the D3x is.

So let's discuss how the new model applies to my work. I currently carry a D3 and D300. I haven't had any huge desire for more pixels for single shots, though I wouldn't reject them if they came along. Currently, the D3 is my "most of the time" camera and the D300 gets used when I need to go light or need more pixel density (wildlife shooting, mainly). Curiously, if there were a 24mp D3x things would tend to reverse for me. The D700 would become my "most of the time" camera and the one I use when I need to go lighter, the D3x would become the camera I use for more pixel density. Indeed, the D700 almost restores me to "full Galen mode," I think. (The "I think" qualifier has to do with the extra 9 ounces the D700 adds to the D300. While a little over half a pound doesn't at first sound bad, the extra weight has a trickle down impact on things like tripod.) A D700, a Zeiss 25mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.4, plus my trusty 70-180mm Micro-Nikkor make a pretty small, high quality kit that has a lot of versatility for my work. It's like dropping five pounds of weight before heading up the trail on another mountain trek (well, I could use dropping a real five pounds, too, but I'll take anything I can get). Why do I say that? Because I can go lighter on tripod, camera, lenses, batteries, and flash than I usually do when carrying the D3. Indeed, a D3x wouldn't come out of my bag unless I'm shooting wildlife or really need the pixels. Technically, I could just keep the D300 for the wildlife and do more HDR panos for the pixels, and I just might do that. Indeed, because I don't know what a D3x is, for the time being, that's exactly what I'll do: shoot D700 main and D300 for pixel density.

This brings up an interesting point. If you shoot D300 and D700 because of size, you standardize on EN-EL3e batteries. If you shoot D700 and either D3 or the likely D3x, then you get the MB-D10 grip for the D700 and use EN-EL4a batteries. I like that flexibility, though adding a grip to the D700 starts to put it close in size and weight to the D3. The D700 is definitely a switch hitter when it comes to batteries. Remember, I still haven't found a good solar charging solution for the EN-EL4a, but have for the EN-EL3e, so now I can take a D300/D700 combo with me to some of those really wild places I like to visit.

Obviously, there are questions unanswered by Nikon's D700 announcement. In particular, both the DSLR and lens lineups are still unclear at the moment.

I've already mentioned the missing D3x. The assumption since the firmware update leak has been that it will use a variant of the Sony 24mp FX sensor. To date, Nikon has always been "first announcer" with Sony sensors. But Sony will be announcing an Alpha 900 with the 24mp sensor at Photokina, so the lack of a D3x announced with the D700 brings up interesting questions. Will Nikon use a variant of the Sony sensor and announce either simultaneously (Photokina) or after Sony? Or is Nikon going a different direction and again using something homegrown? I'd give the odds at 80/20 at the moment for Sony sensor versus homegrown. And it seems a bit odd to announce one pro body in July and another in September. Pros don't like being strung out with multiple announcements. They prefer to know what the game is in one big batch of information. Let's put together a table of the possibilities on the D3x:

  Announce at Photokina Announce Later
24mp D3x What everyone expects. Slight delay from the D700 announcement is strange, but accepted. Leaves multiple vendors with high resolution cameras in market before Nikon. Flames build during delay.
<24mp D3x Needs to be significantly better at high ISO than other high resolution FX options (1DsIII, A900). Same as announce at Photokina, but the later the announcement, the more it has to perform. Flames build during delay.
>24mp D3x A surprise that Nikon would be the pixel leader, but everyone will look very closely at the high ISO capability. Same as announce at Photokina, but the later the announcement, the more it has to perform. Flames build during delay.
No D3x If no D3x appears at Photokina, then the flames start anew. The risk is perception that Nikon is behind in pixel count, though ahead in high ISO ability. In essence, pros have to pick one and live with the implications. If no high resolution pro camera appears by end of year, there will be a lot of questioning of Nikon's strategy (again). Nikon pros risk becoming non-competitive in stock, advertising, and studio work by sticking to 12mp. Flames galore.

Green is good as we're dealing with knowns in the pro line, yellow is caution as we're dealing with unknowns for a period of time, and red is bad news for Nikon pros. Personally, I want a full choice of Nikon pro offerings: D300, D700, D3, and D3x (at least 18mp). Three 12mp Nikons is okay for my work, but leaves me out of some types of shooting assignments. Before everyone asks me what they think Nikon will do: I'd give 4:1 odds that we see the 24mp D3x (though probably without the D3x name; anyone for a D900?) sometime around Photokina.

Now let's move to those consumer DSLRs. As I write this, the only "current" Nikon consumer DSLRs are officially the D40, D60, and D80 (the D40x is no longer made and while you can still find a few around new, that's lingering inventory that will soon be gone). The D40 seems mighty long-in-the-tooth and underpowered. The D80 is overdue for a replacement and the oldest camera in the lineup. The D60 was only a modest update of the D40x. None of these cameras have the latest and greatest sensors or technologies (autofocus, metering, Live View, etc.). Indeed, one of these cameras is riding on a sensor that's been in the wild for five years, the other two are running on a sensor whose design is now a little over three years old. In short, all of Nikon's consumer DSLRs are at least a generation behind in virtually every way. While true low-end consumer products have never been Nikon's forte, even by Nikon standards things seem a little out of whack.

Traditionally, a new Nikon pro body--in this case the D3--begets a new "top end" consumer body, which in turn feeds into the lower consumer bodies. Think F5 --> N80 --> N65+N75. Thus, one might expect that we'd have a D80 replacement that uses the new metering, autofocus, and Live View technologies in some cut-down fashion, sticks on a current generation sensor, and establishes the new "top" for Nikon consumer DSLRs. Try it with me: 12mp, contrast-only Live View, 21 sensor AF Nikon D90. Sounds like a decent boost from the D80, right? And certainly do-able. So where is it? Right now it's feeling more and more like a full renewal of the D40/D60/D80 lineup doesn't come until PMA 2009. Nikon's modest forecast of unit volume for their current fiscal year tells all, I think. Any full and well-executed renewal of the consumer DSLRs would continue Nikon's market share gains, but since Nikon isn't predicting such gains, it's hard to guess that full redesigns are near. PMA 2009 would put them into the next fiscal year in terms of impact, so that's what I'd bet on at the moment. There's a good chance that a D80 replacement could find its way to Photokina or another of those last-moment-before-Christmas intros that Nikon seems to like. That's because there do seem to be rumblings in Thailand concerning both a D80 replacement and some other items already in progress. But if so, then Nikon is low-balling their sales estimates for the year, I think. A well-specified D80 replacement should sell very well. Indeed, if you look at 2008 versus 2007, you get something like this:

2007 2008 Results in
D40 no replacement Loss of sales at very bottom
D40x D60 D60 should pick up sales modestly
D80 D80 replacement D80 replacement should pick up sales modestly
D200/D300 D300 Should do about as well
no equivalent D700 Should pick up significant sales
D2xs/D3 D3 Should do almost as well
no equivalent D3x Should pick up significant sales

Thus, the only place that Nikon would lose sales is at the very bottom of the lineup (at least until a D40 replacement shows up). Perhaps this explains Nikon's puzzling modest unit sales gain predictions for the current fiscal year. If the D40 replacement is a fairly long way off, then overall unit volume would be hurt, as the lowest cost cameras sell the most units. Still, I can't help but remember Nikon executives saying almost two years ago now that they (and others) needed to be prepared to sell US$399 DSLRs in this time period. At present, no sign of one has appeared, and Nikon seems to be dallying in this area, letting a fairly antiquated design suffice for the time being.

Just for the heck of it, I thought I'd compile when Nikon introduced each DSLR model. The results are interesting:

 
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
 
1999
D1
1
2000
0
2001
D1h
D1x
2
2002
D100
1
2003
D2h
D70
2
2004
D2x
1
2005
D2hs
D70s
D50
D200
4
2006
D2xs
D80
D40
3
2007
D40x
D3
D300
3
2008
D60
D700
2
1
4
1
1
0
2
2
3
1
0
2
1
 

The yellow cells are PMA (first part of year) and the orange cells are Photokina trade show months (where the show straddled, I included both months). Notice that Nikon has introduced six DSLRs at PMA but only one at Photokina. I was also surprised to find that Nikon has introduced a quarter of its DSLRs in the dreaded summer months (July/August). I guess vacations are out of the question for the marketing and sales staff, eh? (And for those of you betting folk, the over/under for the D4 is September 2011. Four years and one month from pro generation to generation; see the green cells.)

Meanwhile, the PC-E lenses announced with the D700 has probably caused some nervousness amongst the Nikon faithful. If you look at the last 12 lens announcements you get:

  • Renewal of the exotic telephotos (400mm, 500mm, 600mm)
  • Renewal of wide and normal zooms (14-24mm, 24-70mm)
  • Renewal of the macro and PC lenses (24mm, 45mm, 85mm PC-E, 60mm Micro-Nikkor)
  • VR DX kit lenses (18-55mm VR, 55-200mm VR, 16-85mm VR)

Notice anything about that list? No primes that aren't exotics. No VR for FX. No extensions and fixes in the moderate telephoto range. Unfortunately, I don't expect a lot more this year. Nikon generally doesn't release more than five or six lenses a year, and we've already had five this year. Moreover, if PMA 2009 PMA is about consumer DSLR renewal as I think, it would be a bit of a dissonance to announce the type of lenses that the FX crowd is still waiting for. Let me list just a few: any wide fast prime, 50mm f/1.4G AF-S, 85mm f/1.4G AF-S, 70-200mm VR enhancement, 200mm f/4G Micro-Nikkor, 80-400mm VR AF-S, 300mm f/4 VR AF-S, any lower-specified normal or telephoto zoom (e.g. 24-105mm f/4G and 80-200mm f/4G AF-S VR).

It does seem strange to me that Nikon introduces a D700 and doesn't have the current lens set to go with it (either renewed primes or lower-specified normal/telephoto zooms or both). Until Nikon fixes that, the D700 isn't fully realized IMHO. Note the lenses in my anticipated D700 kit, none of which are current Nikkors, and two of which aren't Nikon made. But think about it from the perspective of the person tempted to go FX with the D700 who's coming from any of the DX Nikons. First, they're likely to have 18-xx zooms. For them to upgrade to a D700 means not only buying a more expensive body, but also picking up some very expensive glass to get a normal zoom back. Since the sensor in the D700 is quite good at high ISO work, you could afford to sacrifice aperture, so a 24-70mm f/4 or 24-105mm f/4 sounds about right. But that doesn't exist in the Nikon lineup, nor with the demise of the old 24-85mm and 28-xx lenses is there anything close (let alone the quality you'd want).

Unfortunately, I don't see the lens situation improving very rapidly. Nikon almost certainly has a multi-year plan for turning over the lens lineup and renewing it, and we'll get whatever half-dozen are at the top of Nikon's list each year for the next several years. Put another way, with Nikon having two FX bodies they did not completely renew the FX lens lineup instantly. They appear prepared to slice and dice their way through the "still missing" list for perhaps several years to come. On the one hand, this is disappointing, as it means that lenses we all might want are still a ways off. On the other hand, every Nikkor that's come out in the last five years has been exceptionally good, even the consumer DX lenses. So if the choice is between a flood of lenses or six really good ones a year, I'll take the six really good ones a year every time. It's not like there aren't alternatives in the Nikon mount.

And what of the SB-900? I've saved the best for last. Nikon has finally done something about many of the weak points on the SB-800. First, we get a flash that can adjust based upon whether it is on a DX or FX body. No more wasted power when shooting DX. Second, the zoom range has been widened to fully cover the basic lens set (14 to 200mm). No more Better Beamer (well, except for wildlife with really long lenses at really long distances). And it's about darned time that we got the ability to control how the light goes across the scene. The new middle-concentrated choice is going to get the vote of all of us who've been using barn doors and snoots to shape light. We'll still carry our accessories, but it's nice to have some control right at the source. And the white balance correction for gel usage? Nice. Mixed lighting has always been a pain, even with gels; now it gets a little easier. The new user interface sounds good, but I'll reserve comment on it until I've had a chance to use it in the field.

So what do I think about Nikon's announcements overall? Love what we got. Good additions, all. But there's a lot of unanswered questions still. Canon has those f/4 lenses that Nikon doesn't. Sony has more and newer consumer DSLR models than Nikon. Where's the D3x? And just where is that DX/FX dividing line at in the near future? D400 or D600?

As usual, Nikon announcements have pleased many but puzzled a few as well. Nikon's playing that part of the Apple role well. I'm reminded of when Apple got the iMac, MacBook, and MacPro lines reinvented and let an older design Mini suffice at the bottom end. (Hey, wait a second, that's still applicable today!)

But the iPod/iPhone success--that would be Coolpix if you're following my analogy--is still missing in action from Nikon. It's been four years since we've had a Coolpix that can shoot raw, and the entire lineup has been deteriorating into OEMed designs with only a wee bit of Nikon touch. Coupled with the suddenly long-in-the-tooth consumer DSLRs, Nikon appears to be running mostly on serious, relatively expensive cameras now (D300, D700, and D3). That's not good for the long run. So here are my candidates for bumper stickers to reflect my thinking:

  • Save the Coolpix.
  • I Thought I'd Never Miss the CP8800.
  • What do we want? Raw. When do we want it? Now.
  • Carpe DX.
  • What would Ansel Do?
  • So many Coolpix. So few usable pictures.
  • Poisson Distribution. It's probable.
  • When I fill your buffer, I want it to be satisfying.
  • If at first you don't succeed, call it a Coolpix.
Poisson Distribution.
It's Probable. www.bythom.com

The Coolpix line is going to get a refresh around the Photokina timeframe. But what makes me think that I won't be taking those bumper stickers off my vehicle?

 

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