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16th Oct 2009

DSLR State Of Play Part 2 – Nikon

We’ve seen 4 new bodies from Nikon this year so far – Nikon has released either 3 or 4 bodies every year since 2005. The D3000 is basically an updated D60, still using the old 10-megapixel CCD sensor: a solid camera but nothing to get really excited about. The D5000 is basically a mini D90, so is a very competent consumer grade camera, but again nothing revolutionary. The other two updates are “s” models – minor updates/refreshes to existing models. The Nikon D300s adds 720p video and an SD card slot to the excellent Nikon D300, as well as improved autofocus. The D3s adds video, larger buffer, sensor shaker/cleaner and ISO 102,400 to what is already a stunning camera.

While these two “s” models make great cameras even greater, there have been no real major advancements this year. Nikon’s 720p video solution is weak – consumer grade at best, and probably doesn’t belong on a $5,000+ professional DSLR in its current form. Before the emails start, yes it can produce very professional results in the right hands, but then so can a cheap consumer camcorder. At this point in time, for most people video on a DSLR falls into the “nice-to-have” category: it can produce some incredible results, but for the most part a DSLR still wouldn’t be your first choice if video is your primary focus.

The most compelling reason to buy the D300s is the improved autofocus. The second memory card slot is nice, video may be useful for some, but the camera hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. It continues where the D300 left off, as a very, very capable and versatile DSLR.

The headline grabbing ISO 102,400 from the new Nikon D3s sounds impressive, but it is a Hi-3 mode. The base ISO has been extended 1 stop, I’ve not seen enough data yet to draw any real conclusions, but I suspect they’ve pulled probably less than a 1 stop improvement out of the sensor (meaning ISO 12,800 on the D3s would be slightly worse than ISO 6,400 on the D3), and the usefulness of results from the new Hi-3 mode will be very limited. That said, the ISO improvements at first glance do look solid, and the marketing department certainly has something to grab headlines with. Canon is expected to release the next iteration of their pro body soon – the Canon 1D Mark IV – and it’s expected to be a big step forward. Prior to the D3, Nikon were considered weaker at high ISO’s – the D3 leapfrogged Canon’s offering, so now two years later the expectation is Canon will leapfrog Nikon and most likely be dominant until the launch of the Nikon D4 in a couple of years.

All four bodies this year from Nikon have been evolutions and improvements of existing technology – nothing really new, no new sensors. With the exception of the cameras at either end of the scale (the $8,000 D3x at 24 mp and the entry-level D3000 at 10 mp), Nikons entire range is based on two 12 megapixel sensors, one FX and one DX. This probably won’t change until late 2010 or 2011 – the Nikon D4 and D400 will almost certainly introduce new sensors and represent major steps forward.

So what is next for Nikon? 2010 should see a D700s (higher ISO, video a-la the D3s) and D90 replacement (perhaps a D90s) with autofocus on video, other minor updates. Possibly a new entry level DSLR as well. The D3x will hit the two-year mark at the end of 2010, so a D3xs is a distinct possibility (add video?).

However the big missing item in the line up right now is a higher resolution Full Frame sensor in a prosumer body to compete with Canon (5D Mark II and to some extent the 7D) and Sony (A900 and A850). Currently Sony will sell you a 24 megapixel DSLR for a quarter of the cost of the D3x ($2,000 vs. $8000). Should it materialize, this potential camera (the rumored ‘D700x’) is the most exciting DSLR on the horizon from Nikon until the arrival of the D4/D400.

However pricing a D700x will be a major challenge: Swapping the sensor in the D3 added $3k to the M.S.R.P ($5k for the D3, $8k for the D3x) – will swapping the sensor in the D700 create a $6k D700x? Not if they want volume sales, Canons 21mp offering with video runs $2,700. Nikon will always be priced a little higher, but to be even considered competition for the 5D Mark II the D700x need to be in the $3k-$4k range.

We also believe video will remain Nikon’s weak point near term – both Sony (who has yet to put video on a DSLR) and Canon has significant expertise when it comes to video and camcorders, Nikon is starting largely from scratch.

On the lens front there have been 5 releases this year – 4 DX lenses and the pro 70-200mm f2.8, further reiterating Nikon’s commitment to DX going forward. Nikon released 7 lenses in both 2008 and 2007, but only 3 in 2006.

Nikon has a very strong pro line of lenses (zooms and telephotos), and a good selection of cheap, light DX lenses. They are however lacking in two key areas:

Firstly, a lot of their primes need updating (the 85mm f1.4 needing AF-S comes to mind, as does the lack of a fast AF-S wide angle), although fast primes these days are largely considered niche products with the quality of the zooms and amazing ISO capabilities of today’s sensors.

What is also missing is a solid mid range/“prosumer” line of AF-S lenses (for D700/D300 users primarily) – the 70-300mm VR is very good, but the 80-400mm needs AF-S, and solid zooms in the ~20mm to 200mm range (smaller, lighter, cheaper, slower than the pro zooms but with solid performance) are largely absent from the current lineup.

Overall Nikon has a very solid line-up, but there has been nothing really exciting from them this year, and probably won’t be until they introduce some new sensors with the D4/D400. In the mean time what we’d like to see, is the 24 megapixel sensor brought to a wider audience by putting it in a prosumer body, and solidifying their mid-range lens lineup.

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