Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Next Camera, Part 3

I'm going to pretend like I'm Thom Hogan and speculate about the rumored Nikon D600 that will allegedly be released sometime this summer.

I don't currently own any digital Nikon kit, only Olympus. The only Nikon camera I've ever owned was the film-era N90. It was an OK camera, a camera I purchased in a fit of passion that slowly faded over the 15 years I had it in my possession. I don't know if it was the N90's fault, mine, or some combination of the two, but my passion for it and photography in general had nearly withered away before the little Canon PowerShot A300 arrived and began to re-kindle a passion for photography. With the purchase of the Olympus E-300 my passion for photography came roaring back.

Somewhere in that sad tale is a lesson, I'm sure. Yet, in spite of my mistakes of history, I refuse to learn from them. So here I am getting all excited like I was a real Nikon fanboy about a rumored Nikon digital camera, as if I were going to rush right out and buy one.

Based on a little scouting around the web I've put together a simple table (below) that compares four (or five, depending) Nikon 24x36mm-sized sensor cameras. I don't compare too many features, but the ones that are  there I consider the most important.

Nikon FX 24x36mm Sensor Cameras (real and otherwise) as of May 2012
Price (body only)~$1,500$2,200$3,000/$3,300$6,000
Sensor Resolution24MP12MP36MP16MP
OVF Coverage100%95%100%100%
When ReleasedQ2 2012Q3 2008Q1 2012Q1 2012
Video CapableYesNoYesYes
DX SupportYesYesYesYes
Body ConstructionCompositeMagnesiumMagnesiumMagnesium
Environmentally SealedMaybeYesYesYes

The first line of features is the price. According to rumors, the price of the D600 will be around $1,500. Let's think about that for a moment. The Nikon D-300s, an APS-C sensor camera (DX), is $1,700 body only. The Canon 7D, an APS-C sensor camera, floats around $1,800. The Olympus E-5 is down around $1,600. And the Sigma SD1 Merrill, an APS-C sensor camera, is a laughable $2,300. When I think about the D600 being "around" $1,500, I could easily see it at $1,700, the same price as the current D300s, replacing the D300s and wiping out the Canon 7D (and just about everybody else foolish enough to sell APS-C sensored cameras) at that price point. That would leave a nice $500 cushion between it and the D7000, the real heir to the D300s.

The 24MP resolution of this rumored camera is also very interesting to contemplate. Why put a 24MP 24x36mm sensor in a relatively in-expensive FX body? Because they've done something very similar already with the 24MP APS-C D3200. Nikon is now playing an aggressive game in the camera market, because they have no choice. As many have already noted, APS-C and 4/3rds sensor technology have reached essential parity and are now "good enough" to substitute for the far more expensive FX-based bodies. That's a terrible place to be in. I'm not alone in my displeasure and unwillingness to pay $3,000 and up for a Nikon or a Canon, and Nikon knows this. They also know that even at $1,500 a 24x36mm-sized sensor body won't sell well if it doesn't have the same megapixel parity as their lowest-entry cameras. So they're going to release an entry-level FX camera with 24MP because that other Nikon, the one that released the 24MP D3200, is forcing them to.

One key observation about Nikon sensors. When Nikon released the Nikon 1 CX sensor based cameras, a lot of folks poo-pooed the camera and its itty-bitty sensor. They never went back and looked at the quality photographs that sensor produced, nor fully contemplated the fact that the sensor had PDAF sites on the sensor surface. The CX sensor has 73 phase-detect focusing sites, which when combined with the contrast detect focus capability of the sensor provides a hybrid focusing capability for both F-mount lenses (with the FT-1 straight-through adapter) as well as native Nikon 1 lenses. It's no stretch to see this sensor technology scaled up to the D600's sensor. The D600 with such sensor technology would have the ability to provide live-view autofocus while shooting video. And it would eliminate the need to have a separate phase-detect focusing system that all current Nikon DSLRs now have. They've already amortised the cost of developing this technology with the Nikon 1, and they would save money by combining contrast and phase detect autofocus on the sensor in the D600.

When it comes to video, that's a no brainer. Nikon, the DSLR company that released video first in a DSLR with the D90, will continue to release video in all their cameras, especially with this camera. And I suspect it'll be something to really write home about.

As for body construction and environmental sealing, here's where Nikon can save some money in manufacturing costs. Canon showed with the 60D that you could build a composite-based camera body with environmental seals, and Pentax has just release the K-30, another composite-based body that is environmentally sealed. While the D300s, at $1,700, is built out of magnesium as well as sealed, keep in mind that it has the smaller sensor, and it was designed and built in an earlier time when composites weren't as nearly as refined as they are today. A smallish, light, composite body will help keep costs down and make the overall package profitable at that price point.

The Long Game

I now believe that Nikon's DX cameras will be phased out by the end of this decade. I believe that Nikon is driving the FX to lower and lower price points, and that they'll fill in the very low end with CX mirrorless cameras. The demarcation is US$1,000.

Nikon could produce one more very-low-cost (say $1,000) FX camera, a composite-bodied camera that's a D5100 all grown up as it were. The CX would start at around $1,000 (there's a little bit of overlap) and have two or three models going to down to around $400. That pretty much takes out the need for point-and-shoot cameras, which are being decimated by smart phones anyway. And for all those folks with DX bodies, well, remember that the DX and FX bodies have one mount: the Nikon F mount.

Every FX body will mount the DX lenses and they'll pretend they're DX cameras. The D600 is supposed to do this automatically when the DX lens is mounted. And at those prices, what's not to like? The investment is in glass, and as long as those legacy lens owners have an upward path at a reasonable price, they'll come running. I don't see Nikon treating all its customers they way Olympus is shamefully treating its regular 4/3rds customers.

Always remember: whether the sensor is APS-C or 24x36mm, the mirror box and mount are FX sized, which makes every DX and FX body pretty much the same size and weight. If a body is oversized like the D4, it's primarily because of the built-in vertical grip along the bottom.

Everybody has complained about the lack of quality DX lenses compared to their FX breathern. Even Thom Hogan has complained from time to time. The simple solution is to get rid of the DX bodies and provide an inducement to move to FX, where it becomes a lot more straightforward for Nikon's development and manufacturing. And in the process they get to stomp all over Canon, and Sony, and Pentax, and Olympus, etc, etc, etc.

I have no idea where µ4/3rds in general, and Olympus in particular, eventually wind up in this. It's going to be really hard to sell against a $1,000 4/3rds sensor camera against a $1,000 FX camera, unless the 4/3rds sensor camera is a really sweet bundle. And then they're going to have to content with Nikon's CX mirrorless, which I firmly believe Nikon will use in that market segment. I expect that Olympus will be completely out of the camera business by the end of this decade, if not sooner. And I expect Panasonic will follow suit.

As for Canon, I have no idea how they'll react, but I don't think Canon will do all that well in the long term. While there are many rabid Canon fans who'll scream otherwise, there's no denying the price differential between Nikon and Canon at this point in time. Both of Canon's high-end cameras are $500 higher than Nikons, and I think that was a strategic mistake on Canon's part. If and when the D600 is released, it will be interesting to see if Canon can react quickly enough to counter with an equivalently speced camera at the same price point. Because nobody in their right mind is going to spend the same cash for an APS-C camera (the 7D) when they can get a real honest-to-goodness Nikon FX camera and join that special league.


More Nikon D600 specs -
Nikon 1 series -


  1. Hmmm. I didn't read Thom's site since a while, but what you write here makes really good sense. If you take into account that sensor-based PDAF gets rid of front or back focusing and is fast enough to do almost anything, then they'd be silly not to integrate this into their top-of-the-line models. And a price of around 1,500 US$ is awfully close to the E-M5, about which DPReview said something along the lines of: "If you really want or need better image quality, go full frame". So if these speculations prove to be true, that sounds like a really well thought out business plan to me.

    Yeah, Olympus (and also Panasonic) would have to adjust their prices, and also get something like PDAF into their sensors to compete. Cannot understand anyway why something *without* a mirror has to be that expensive - if you leave out the lenses, these modern electronic "gadgets" are not much more technologically than phones anyway, compared to a mechanically much more complex DSLR. And well, Nikon made the right first step before getting rid of their mirrors - that was a brilliant move IMHO.

    Wow - sounds like an interesting race to watch, and indeed Nikon seems to have a head start advantage. I hope Olympus will survive - I have the greatest respect for their lens department and engineers, and I just love the 4/3rds format so much more than Barnack's 2:3. But even this is covered in the D800(E), which can also switch to 4:5 - for portraits that's at least as good as 4/3rds...

    Interesting - thanks for sharing this, Bill.

    1. Thanks, Wolfgang. What makes a phone apparently affordable with regards to any camera is the sheer number of phones that are manufactured, and the way they're sold by (US) providers. A phone with a two year contract is actually quite pricey when you add up all the expenses, on contract or off, to operate the phone.

  2. Nice analysis and I agree with most of what you say. I do think that Sony will become a stronger and stronger player, even to the point of displacing Canon as one of the top two makers. Their tech is really good. As we move into a software universe it's becoming part of the competition.

    1. Thanks Kirk. Sony is the real wild card of the group. And Sony is supplying sensors to Nikon and Pentax. Their latest series of cameras, α37/α57/α65/α77 make for a potent little group with some really interesting technology.

  3. It interesting. Two years ago everyone was saying the FX was dead because DX had gotten so good. Now you think that FX is going to get so cheap that DX is going to die.

    I suppose its possible, but it doesn't seem likely that Nikon will kill off their bigger seller. TIme will tell, but I hope this post is still online in two years so we can see how close you were to reality. Or how far.

    1. A lot can happen in two years. As for what happens, the best way to make a prediction is to give plenty of time (the end of the decade or eight years in this case) and to not take yourself too seriously.

  4. That's true, but your prediction about the D600 will be tested a lot sooner then that.

    If Nikon really does come out with a $1500 FF camera, the only reason to buy an E-M5 might be the size, which might not be a good enough reason.

    If the D600 is over $2000 then it becomes a (probably) great camera that isn't really in the same market as the E-M5.


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