Nikon’s DX Problems, 2014 Edition

(commentary)

I’ve written many times in the past five years about Nikon’s DX problems, but shooting again with a D7100 for two weeks in the Galapagos just brought them back to the forefront for me. 

First, let me say again that the D7100 is a darned good camera. Focus performance is strong, the sensor is as good as it gets for crop sensors, and the feature set is mostly what you’d expect for the money. 

But…the buffer is limiting, the camera is far larger and heavier than the emerging mirrorless competitors, and that buffer can be a limiting factor, especially if you’re not using a state-of-the-art card in the camera.

But enough about a specific camera, what are Nikon’s real problems with the full DX line at the moment?

  • Size and weight. Especially with the appearance of the EM-1, EM-10, and X-T1, the notion of “small DSLR” has just gotten smaller. Smaller than a D3300. As the performance of those mirrorless cameras comes up, other factors start to become more important in buying decisions, and small/light is right up there. Even Canon tried a stab at that message with the SL1. Nikon? Still waiting.
  • Water resistance. Which Nikon DX DSLR is splash proof? None at the levels the mirrorless competitors are achieving. The cynic would say that Nikon doesn’t want your DX camera to last too long, otherwise they might not sell you another.
  • LCD flexibility. The V3 and the D5300 have tilt or swivel screens. The other DX cameras don’t have it. Yet, again the mirrorless competitors tend to have it now, and even Canon is less stingy about putting it on their crop sensor DSLRs than Nikon. 
  • Too much on the shelf. I can’t vouch for all geographic regions, but the three big ones that I’ve been monitoring all have substantial inventory on dealers shelves of past models. What was Nikon’s top selling DSLR last month in the US? The D3200. In the US, a D3200 is US$100 less than the D3300, a D5200 is US$150 less than a D5300. Customers are buying Nikon DX DSLRs on price now. That’s always a dangerous thing, as raising prices is far, far more difficult than lowering them. Worse still, given the identical price of the D3300 and D5200 in the US right now, no one should buy a D3300. 
  • Lens set. m4/3 has a complete lens set, DX doesn’t. Fujifilm is pretty close to a complete basic lens set, DX isn’t. Sony has announced a full road map even for the full frame FE mount, Nikon hasn’t. The two laggards in crop sensor lens sets? Canon and Nikon. By a wide margin. Unless, of course, you want an 18-something DX zoom, in which case you can pretty much pick your “something”.


Nikon’s strategy has been to aim low with the DX cameras (not lens purchasers, price sensitive, withhold features to differentiate models, etc.). While they’re doing that, they’ve been mostly targeting FX cameras, though as far as I’m concerned they’ve mostly muddied the FX choices by trying to squeeze the wrong things into too tight a price space and forgetting what changed the course of their DSLR success (D300, D700, D3, D3x). 

What’s happened is that the competitors other than Canon have all struck right in the space that Nikon has been neglecting (Canon has been neglecting it, too). The only thing that’s kept things from falling apart for Nikon in DX is that Nikon’s volume still gives them pricing flexibility. The E-M1 and X-T1, for example, are around the D7100 price point, and then it becomes a 16mp versus 24mp, good autofocus versus great autofocus choice. Still, what I’ve previously referred to as “leaking” is happening every day with DX. 

The lens choices are one of the things really driving the leaks, in my opinion. The size/weight/waterproofing are bonuses for most people that tip the scales. Throw in a swivel LCD and get the focus performance for many tasks up to DSLR levels, and it’s highly tempting for the serious Nikon DX owner to test the waters of another mount. Better yet, tempt them with a full frame sensor at lower-than-Nikon prices ;~). 

So the leaking is still happening, and the pace has picked up a bit in the last six months. We’re probably one big focus gain away from mirrorless cameras looking every bit as good as Nikon’s aging DX DSLR iterations. 

With rumors of the D300s replacement finally getting into the production queue for this year, Nikon certainly has a chance to get some attention back and make some sales at the DX high end. Done right, they might even get a few leakers back, though the DX lens situation is starting to become a large hurdle to that. Nikon must certainly expect that a D9300 purchaser would want equivalents for fixed aperture 24-70mm+, 70-200mm, plus a set of three or four primes (24, 35, 50, 85mm equivalents) that are DX sized and priced. Yet Nikon only has one of those currently in their lens lineup. m4/3? All of them. Fujifilm? Primes are here, zooms will be here later this year. Even Samsung will be able to make the claim to have the basics covered by the end of the year.

Bottom line: a D9300 might solve the body problem, done right, but Nikon’s going to find out how lens sensitive that target user really is. The good news for Nikon is that third parties have been filling some of the gaps, but wouldn’t Nikon actually want to be selling these folk both camera and lenses? Nikon was an optics-based company, after all.

And a D9300 doesn’t solve the rest of the DX line problems. Nikon needs to:

  • Dump the existing inventory. Time for a fire sale. Dealers aren’t ordering (much) new product because they still have old product they need to sell. Sure, you could just let the dealers die, but frankly, dealers are one of the prime advantages Canon and Nikon have over the other competitors: most people here in the US live somewhere where they drive to see the Nikon products. Most people outside of major markets can’t drive to see Fujifilm or Olympus or Panasonic products. So Nikon needs to do a favor to the dealers with stock of the “old DX”: get it off their shelves. Fast.
  • Dump the arbitrary distinctions and create real ones. With the D3300, D5300, and D7100 all at 24mp, all with the same basic feature sets, Nikon is using arbitrary crippling to try to make the products look different (e.g. only D5300 has swivel LCD). Long term this isn’t going to work against increased competition and smaller market size. And, ironically, many high end photo enthusiasts will just buy the least expensive model and avoid all the feature creep when the image quality is equal across the line. Entry, midlevel, and high-end need a far better definitional thrust than “leave these things out of the menus” and “add these things to the menus”). Either that or we don’t need a line of four DX cameras. 
  • Up the feature sets. Here’s another problem: as compact and mirrorless cameras try to raise their game in order to escape the rising smartphone tide, they stumble right into the low-end DSLR feature realms. And sometimes surpass them. No bracketing on the D3300? Why, it’s on most of those cameras coming up at the D3300 from below. Nikon has an internal chart that shows how they’ll roll features out through a number of years in the model lines. They need to burn that chart and start over.
  • Make us want DX again. Lack of lenses other than convenience zooms has pushed a lot of folk away from DX, plus Nikon’s love towards FX lately has moved some more folk away. So, gee, what do you expect to happen to the DX line? Growth? Nope. I’m not sure Nikon has done a good job telling us why we want FX, but they certainly haven’t even begun to do so with DX (and for that matter CX). Funny thing is, as I evaluated my gear closet with care, I found that the cameras I wanted to use (for different things) were the D800E, D7100, and V3, or FX, DX, and CX. And I want a better D7100 and V3 ;~). And more lenses for DX and CX. Nikon’s likely to launch a D9300 mostly around some sort of technology play (fps, focus performance, image quality, etc.), but those aren’t things that are easy to “love.” We need to love DX again. And Nikon needs to help us do that.      

    


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