Here's how to predict what Nikon will create in future DSLRs
A lot of folk still haven't quite caught onto Nikon's methodology, let alone how specific product decisions get made at the company. Nikon, if anything, has proven to be relatively predictable for several decades now, with only some of the fine engineering details and subtle product strategy shifts being surprises. Short answer: Nikon updates products on a regular basis from fixed platforms, likes to reuse parts across bodies, and has a fixed set of design teams that rotate to "the next design need."
Aside: With such predictability comes great risk, as Nikon is vulnerable to a lot of different risks: (a) disruptive designs or technology may not come from Nikon, so they'd be a follower, not a leader, if that happens. We can see this already in the mirrorless designs. Those cameras exposed a large weakness in Nikon's derive-new-cameras-from-old design philosophy. More on that in a bit. (b) competitors can basically predict what Nikon will do and use that to attack where they see vulnerabilities. The 5D and 5DII and the Canon f/4 IS lenses were such examples, as Canon clearly saw that Nikon was not in a hurry to push FX at the time, let alone push it down into the prosumer class; now that’s reversed and Canon is pushing the 7Ds when Nikon doesn’t have a response (c) customers are getting "upgrade fatigue" as the proliferation of minor changes and additions to the same basic product is starting to wear them out economically. Coupled with the Yen appreciation, which caused price increases, the recession in 2008, which caused demand decreases, and the quake and flood that disrupted Nikon's manufacturing in 2011, this put an increased tension on the 18-24 month schedule of "add some features, improve IQ slightly, but basically design the same camera over and over.”
Here in 2016 we have a yen resistance to depreciation, plus lower customer demand for cameras that’s driving decisions. This, too, is putting pressure on Nikon’s long-held development strategy. Thus, a caveat: what I write is mostly historically based. It’s quite possible for Nikon to make another big shift, as they did from film SLRs to digital.
As I've written before, new generations of pro Nikon bodies, where new technologies tend to get introduced, come at four year intervals, and those intervals are scheduled to precede Summer Olympics years. Consider:
- 6/99: D1 intro, starts D1 generation (D1, D1h, D1x); Sydney Olympics 9/00
- 7/03: D2h intro, starts D2 generation (D2h, D2hs, D2x, D2xs); Athens Olympics 8/04
- 8/07: D3 intro, starts D3 generation (D3, D3x, and so on); Beijing Olympics 8/08
- est. 8/11, actual 1/12: D4 intro, starts D4 generation (D4, D4x, and so on) (delayed due to quake); London Olympics 7/12
- est. 8/15, actual 1/16: D5 intro, starts D5 generation (D5, D5x, and so on); Rio de Janeiro Olympics 8/16
- est. 1/20: D6 intro, starts D6 generation; Tokyo Olympics 8/20
That's a pretty safe prediction, actually: the D5 got introduced exactly four years after the D4, so we’ve shifted the cycles a bit after the quake, but otherwise everything is still intact. Indeed, any internal Nikon "road map" almost certainly has those entries, above. We'll get to what that means in a bit.
For the prosumer DX bodies, Nikon has hiccuped quite a bit:
- 2/02: D100
- 12/05: D200
- 8/07: D300
- 7/09: D300s
- original est. 8/11: D400 (update skipped because of Thailand flood?)
- 1/16: D500
Even with those hiccups, it should be obvious that Nikon intended to iterate the prosumer DX body at about two year intervals (two years was their likely original goal, but they stopped coming close to that mark starting with the flood in Thailand in 2011). The D200 appears to have taken slightly longer to get to, but we got back on some sort of reasonable two-year cycle (though with less changing between cycles), only to miss the D400 (again, probably due to the Thailand floods in that time frame, which caused supplier disruption, among other problems).
The "high end consumer camera" has typically been on a two-year cycle as well (the D70s as an interim very minor upgrade):
- 1/04: D70
- 4/05: D70s
- 9/06: D80
- 8/08: D90
- 9/10: D7000
- 3/13: D7100
- my original estimate 2/15, actually appeared 3/15: D7200
- est. 3/17: D7300
Thus, one should expect a D7300 (my guess at the D7200 replacement name) in early 2017 at the soonest. Pay attention to Nikon's past practices: we've had a strong hobbyist camera since the N70, even further back if you consider film SLRs (N6006), and while the cycle has extended a bit over time, it still tends to be very predictable.
The mid-level consumer body has also been on a one-and-a-half to two-year schedule, though the last iteration was quicker for some reason:
- 3/09: D5000
- 4/11: D5100
- 11/12: D5200
- 11/13: D5300
- 1/15: D5500
- 1/17: likely a mirrorless camera at that date
The low-end consumer bodies are a whole different story. We had a new consumer DX body basically once a year at the low end for most of their history, then things slowed down in the last few cycles:
- 4/05: D50
- 12/06: D40
- 6/07: D40x
- 1/08: D60
- 7/09: D3000
- 8/10: D3100
- 3/12: D3200
- 2/14: D3300
- 2015/2016: likely mirrorless replacement
Likewise, the Nikon 1 bodies (which I cover on sansmirror.com) have been on a one year or slightly longer iteration cycle, at least for the J series.
The smaller FX bodies (D610, D750, and D810) have no real predictive cycle yet. Nikon seems to have shifted some of their DX iteration to FX iteration lately (D600 got iterated very quickly, and the D800/D800E got iterated in two years to a D810, something that would be considered a “norm” for the three-digit bodies previously, so perhaps we can expect a D850 in 2016).
Camera Platforms and Names
Here's another thing that people don't always realize: Nikon has four basic body “platforms" they iterate on (bold is current product):
- Pro with Integrated Grip: D1, D1h, D1x, D2h, D2hs, D2x, D2xs, D3, D3s, D3x, D4, D4s, D5
- Prosumer: D100, D200, D300, D300s, D500, D700, D800/D800E, D810
- Large Consumer: D50, D70, D70s, D80, D90, D7000, D7100, D7200, D600, D610, D750
- Small Consumer: D40, D40x, D60, D3000, D3100, D3200, D3300, D5000, D5100, D5200, D5300, D5500
The oddball is the Df, which seems to be a mix of Prosumer and Large Consumer pieces mixed with those new nostalgic dials.
Yes, that means that Nikon has made both DX and FX bodies on some of the same platforms (e.g. D7100 and D610 obviously shared a "platform" and virtually all parts that weren’t specifically DX or FX were common to both). It certainly is possible that Nikon could end up with four DX and four FX cameras, one on each platform, though as I write this a DX and FX pairing is only available simultaneously on the Prosumer (D500 and D810) and Large Consumer platforms (D7200 and D750). Put another way, I don't believe that Nikon thinks of the platforms as being DX or FX, but rather just a grouping of parts and manufacturing processes that are upgraded from time to time.
Parts also tend to move downward to new platforms. The best example of that has been the autofocus system. The 51-sensor AF module started with the D3/D300, the top two platforms at the time. It has now worked its way down to one of the large consumer bodies (D7100 and D7200), and likely will spread its way further down to the small consumer bodies.
As if that weren't enough, Nikon's names are also (mostly) predictable. The pro generation changeovers tend to dictate when Nikon switches from initial odd to even numbers for the other models, though this is no longer perfectly predictive. When we were in the D2 generation, we got the D40, D60, D80, D200 (we also got an oddity in the D70). In the D3 generation we got the D90, D300, D700, D3000, D5000, and D7000. In the D4 generation we reverted back to even values for new initial numbers (e.g. D600 and D800, though the D750 was an exception).
Nikon did make some changes recently to numbering, first separating the consumer bodies (D#000) from the prosumer bodies (D#00). Four-digit cameras are consumer cameras, three-digit cameras are (mostly) prosumer, one-digit cameras are pro (two-digit cameras are no longer made, probably because Nikon used up so many of those numbers). This numbering has been confused by the appearance of the D610 and D750, which are actually consumer type bodies. It very well may be that the new formula is:
- 1 digit (e.g. D4s) is pro body
- 3 digits (e.g. D810) is an FX body or a pro DX body (e.g. D500)
- 4 digits (e.g. D7100) is always a DX body
Nikon seems their own worst enemy on naming, though. It was looking like 3-digit names were going to only be FX when no D400 showed up. Nikon had two choices with the D300s followup when it finally arrived: (a) link it to the successful D3/D300 pairing by launching it simultaneously with the D5 and calling it the D500; or (b) using the empty D9000 naming slot to suggest that it was at the top of the DX line.
So that's the cameras, how about lenses?
Lenses are a lot much more difficult to predict. This, too, has to do with Nikon engineering culture and organization. In the lens division, traditionally there's more leeway for the top designers to pursue things that interest them personally. That's why we get these mini series of lenses every now and then, such as the PC-E lenses. Tactically, they're not hugely important or big sellers. But someone wanted the design challenge and it did fix a parity issue with Canon's offerings, so it got on the schedule.
That said, you can see several trends in Nikon's decisions about lenses. Basically we have several clear lens sets:
- DX 18-xx variable aperture zooms. These are best sellers, especially the ones with long focal length ranges.
- DX 55-xx telephoto variable aperture zooms. Again, best sellers, so natural for Nikon to do.
- FX fast primes. A rework of the f/1.4 lens (24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm so far) and f/1.8 lens sets (20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm). Curiously, none are E, none are very video friendly, which suggests yet another remake opportunity for Nikon.
- FX fast zooms. Basically the mainstay of the pros (14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 200-400mm).
- FX slowish zooms. Basically a compete-with-Canon f/4 initiative (currently 16-35mm, 24-120mm, 70-200mm).
- FX variable aperture zooms. Currently a 18-35mm, 24-85mm, 28-300mm, 70-300mm, and the 80-400mm.
- Exotic telephotos. We're on the umpteenth generation of the fast 200mm, 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm lenses, and now have an 800mm added to the lineup. Upgrades tend to be dictated by new technology for coatings, focus, or VR. Currently, the exotics are all adding flourite elements, a hydrophobic coating on the front element, electronic apertures, and “sport” mode VR
- Micro-Nikkors. A partial refresh of the old 55/60mm, 105mm, 200mm trio, giving short, medium, and long working distance options. This was extended to DX, so we currently have 40mm DX, 85mm DX, 60mm and 105mm lenses, with only the longest macro lens missing in both DX and FX.
- PC-E lenses. A full set of tilt/shift lenses, basically to compete with Canon.
Outside of these lens sets, we tend to get only a small number of additional best-seller attempts (e.g. 35mm f/1.8 DX and 16-80mm DX). One thing that has bothered me for fourteen years now is that we still don't have anything approaching equivalency in the DX line, despite the fact that we've had pro and/or prosumer DX bodies for that entire period. No DX fast prime set (just one lens). No DX fast zoom set (just one lens).
So what's missing from the sets I defined? A few very fast FX primes (50mm f/1.2, 105mm f/2, 135mm f/2 extensions). The 200mm Micro-Nikkor replacement. A 17mm PC-E. We're also missing a DX prime set (14mm f/2.8 DX, 16mm f/2.8, 18mm f/2.8, 24mm f/2 DX or faster) and a fast zoom set (12-24mm f/2.8 DX, 50-150mm f/2.8 DX, perhaps a VR replacement of the 17-55mm). If you're counting, that's 12 lenses, which is more than two year's worth of typical Nikon lens releases. I'll bet that many (but not close to all, because we'll get a number of oddballs, too) of Nikon's coming lenses in the next two years will be from that list or updates of things we've already got.
There you have it: a likely Nikon Road Map for DSLRs and lenses for the next two years. I could be wrong on a few details here and there (especially lenses), but Nikon should be pretty close to what I outline here.
See also: Patents Predict