The Best and Worst of Nikon 2015

(Commentary)

Looking back on Nikon’s new products announced and shipped in 2015, things were pretty darned good for the photo enthusiast and pro photographer: 

  • D7200 and D810A bodies
  • 16-80mm f/2.8-4E DX, 24mm f/1.8G, 200-500mm f/5.6E, 300mm f/4E, 500mm f/4E, 600mm f/4E

The observant amongst you will know what I left off that list: the 24-70mm f/2.8E VR. Yes, that lens is my candidate for the worst of Nikon’s 2015 offerings: bigger, more expensive, with little useful optical gain. This workhorse lens runs far counter to  the trend in the other lenses Nikon has been producing, which pretty much all hit well above their expected batting average. To say that the new 24-70mm was a disappointment is to state the obvious: it moved only one bar in the positive direction: the addition of VR. It moved too many bars in the negative direction. Optically, it seems a bit—but only a bit—better than its predecessor, so the negatives start to outweigh the positives. The third party mid-range zoom makers are going to have a field day on the carcass of the 24-70mm f/2.8E.

In terms of best product for the high-end photographer, I’d vote for the D7200 and the 200-500mm and 300mm lenses. These are all Nikon at its best: solid products that perform well and are distinguished by very nice technologies and features under the hood that the customer won’t trip over. All perform quite well in actual use. The D7200 and D810 are my primary cameras these days, and both those lenses have taken up permanent residence in my gear closet. 

Not that the rest of that group—other than the 24-70mm—is a let down. The 16-80mm f/2.8-4E DX was a very nice addition and makes a wonderful mate to the non-existent D400. The 24mm f/1.8G may be the best f/1.8 prime in the series, and this was a good series. Plus getting the 500mm and 600mm exotics up to the latest and greatest tech shows that Nikon isn’t abandoning the top end, though they do seem to be charging more for it. 

Meanwhile, on the consumer side we had:

  • J5 and D5500 bodies
  • 55-200mm f/4-5.6G VR II DX

Hmm. That seems a little paltry. Sure, there were a dozen Coolpix I could add in there, but other than the P900 there isn’t anything of photographic interest there, and the P900 is once again crippled by being a “professional” camera without the ability to save raw files. (I imagine a large highly political committee that meets regularly and parcels out features and abilities based upon some byzantine and labyrinthian document written by part-time workers housed in the dark basement of a Nikon building somewhere in Tokyo.) 

It’s easy enough to say that the D5500 was the best of the consumer products this year. You know what that means: the J5 was the worst. Not that it’s terrible, but Nikon’s fifth generation of the J model is pretty much more of the same, only using a different sensor vender. All the bad J decisions seem to carry over (“committee votes for continuity, even if what that means is continuation of something poor”). At least the price is lower. 

As I noted in Spring, something changed at Nikon in 2015. Products I had thought would make it out in 2015 were postponed into 2016, or perhaps even cancelled. Others that had been off the table appear to be back on it (e.g. D400). By all appearances, Nikon finished their early year releases (D5500, D7200) plus their planned lens releases, but everything else shifted. The lens releases make sense: lenses are longer term projects than cameras (other than the D5), and have very long lead times for pouring, curing, and polishing glass that would be wasted if you cancelled or postponed those products. 

So, the quick assessments. If the product is right for your needs:

  • Buy the D5500
  • Buy the D7200
  • Consider the D810A
  • Skip the J5
  • Buy the 16-80mm f/2.8-4E DX
  • Buy the 24mm f/1.8G
  • Skip the 24-70mm f/2.8E VR
  • Consider the 55-200mm f/4-5.6G II VR DX
  • Buy the 200-500mm f/5.6E
  • Buy the 300mm f/4E
  • Consider the 500mm f/4E, but consider used and previous models too
  • Consider the 600mm f/4E, but consider used and previous models too

Worst Nikon product of the year: 24-70mm f/2.8E VR

Best Nikon product of the year: D7200

About that last: I get asked a lot about the difference between the D7100 and D7200, especially given the deals on the former going on. Like Nikon did with the D810 versus the D800: the D7200 has a lot of small things and features that make it a completely different camera than the D7100 in actual use. Small things got fixed or made better. It just operates more like you’d expect in every respect, and things that you might not have even thought about—the separation of the still and video shooting menus, for example—add ability while keeping things clear. Whoever approved and designed the changes that created the D810 and D7200 should be promoted. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts on these two products, which is what good design is all about.

Update: it seems a number of you think that I wrote that the 24-70mm is a bad product. No. I wrote that it’s the worst of the products that Nikon put out this year, the one that disappoints the most. That doesn’t make it a useless product, just not the product we were all imagining.

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