So Many Unanswered Questions

(commentary)

Here we are two months post D5/D500 announcement, a weeks after the DL announcements, and we have so many important, unanswered questions still. Here are the things I’ll be looking for answers to over the next three (!) months:

  • What’s the real scoop on noise and dynamic range performance? We’ve seen plenty of D5 JPEGs that are impressive, but these are processed images. What we need to see is what happens with raw with no noise reduction to be able to assess how far we’ve really come with the sensors. (Update: Bill Claff has some initial D5 measurements.) Moreover, the D500 specs seem to indicate that it’s significantly better than a D7200, which would be a real surprise, because the D7200 is in a class by itself, within a half stop of 24mp FX sensors. We need real cameras to test for this, and some controlled shooting in raw to get the full story. Fortunately, by next week the D5 characteristics should be well known.
  • When is the D500 really going to make it to market? The current belief is that it’ll ship April 21st. Still, I’m more suspicious today than I was in January that the D500 was a rushed announcement. The delay “due to demand” is also seeming to feel a little false the longer we go without any chatter from the Nikon Ambassadors about the camera being used in real situations. I suspect no one really has a version 1.00 firmware product in their hands yet, and a totally new sensor isn’t something you easily turn on in volume, especially if it’s stacked as some suspect. 
  • Why were the DLs announced over three months before they’ll appear? It’s a bit non-Nikon to be so far out in front of the actual shipment with product announcements. Yes, they’ve done it a few times before, but almost always with “development announcements,” not actual full product launches. As I’ve noted, putting them on the Web sites has pushed existing lenses off the first page of products, which seems a strange thing to do for a product that isn’t shipping versus one for which you’re trying to sell existing inventory. The fact that Nikon is taking pre-orders themselves on DL models puts them clearly into grounds where they’ll soon be in violation of the FTC’s “prompt delivery” rules. After 30 days, Nikon is going to have to notify all those customers that ordered on the Nikon Web site of their rights to cancel. Coupled with the D500 pre-announcement, I’m starting to wonder whether Nikon made all these announcements to try to tackle the short sellers of their stock. If so it’s a risky strategy, as it can totally backfire.
  • Does Autofocus Fine Tune actually work? This is one I’m going to be looking at very carefully. I’m guessing that Nikon is going to have a problem on their hands, and its name is 80-400mm AF-S VR. What? Why do I say that? For some time now, I’ve been aware that quite a few of the newer 80-400mm lenses don’t accurately focus in live view at 400mm. After encountering three such samples, I asked Roger Cicala at Lens Rentals to do a quick test on his stock, and he found the same thing as I: quite a few samples don’t reliably autofocus in live view. I reported this to NikonUSA, but got no response. Note that these lenses all focus just fine in normal operation, it’s only in live view that we’ve seen any issues. But the D5/D500 use live view to do the automatic fine tuning. So the very first thing I’m going to do is mount an 80-400mm that I know doesn’t accurately live view focus on my D810 and see what it does on the D5. So why I haven’t written about this before? Well, I’ve hinted at it, and I was actually hoping that I’d get a response from Nikon by now. But thing is, it would be rare that you’d use live view at 400mm. Extremely rare. So it ain’t a big thing. Except now with Automatic Autofocus Fine Tune, it might be ;~). 
  • Where does the Nikon 1 go? The DLs basically box in the Nikon 1, as I’ve noted before. It’s almost come to this: I’d rather have the three DLs than one Nikon 1 body and any three CX  lenses you can name. And those DLs would probably cost less. Ouch. If the Nikon 1 is a dead end as many of us now expect, that has implications on what Nikon does next. I don’t think, for example, that they can successfully introduce any new mirrorless system that doesn’t use the F-mount lenses. Why? Because the two times they’ve tried a new lens system (film APS and CX) it’s failed. But who knows, maybe Nikon is smarter than me. Maybe they have a secret plan for Nikon 1 that will wow enough people to keep it alive. I’ve asked a lot of folk whether they could think of any such plan and they’ve all come up empty, though. The best anyone can come up with is “fix the V series with a better designed V4.” I don’t think that saves Nikon 1, it just keeps some of the committed in place for awhile.
  • And speaking of lenses, where are they? We have those quotes from Nikon executives last year that people will be happy with the DX lenses that are coming. Uh, that would be the 18-55mm P and the 16-80mm E? Yes, I’m happy with the 16-80mm E, but is that it? You make a potentially seminal camera (D500) and give it one new lens that’s basically a replacement for an existing one? No, Nikon executives, we’re not happy with that. But moreover, we haven’t had any lens introductions other than the 18-55mm P kit lens this year. Nada. In terms of F-mount lenses, annual history goes like this in the digital era: 6, 5, 5, 3, 3, 4, 7, 7, 4, 9, 6, 6, 5, 5, 8, then 1 so far this year (I count the two versions of the P as one, as I have any previous VR/non-VR pairing). So we need to see some glass action from Nikon. The good news is that recent introductions have all been winners or good steps forward. But suddenly we’re not taking steps.

What I’m not looking for an answer for is actually the new autofocus system on the D5/D500. I’m assuming that we’re going to get a clear step forward there, and the few folk I know that have had a chance to shoot with the D5 seem to confirm that. Snappier, more accurate, and better tracking options are the early reports. I’ll obviously be looking to confirm that, but given Nikon’s track record on focus systems, I have no reason to doubt both Nikon’s claims and the early field reports. About the only thing that concerns me at all is the four obvious vertical gaps in the coverage, and even then primarily only on the D500, where they occupy more image area.

This is a year where we should get some answers to the big questions. Where exactly are Canon and Nikon going? Does mirrorless do more than run in place? Does the trend towards higher end really resonate and keep the camera makers’ heads above water? Do the 1” compacts become the new norm? 

By the time Photokina finishes in September, we should have a lot of answers. While it’s way too early to say anything useful, the January 2016 CIPA numbers were basically more of the same: DSLRs clearly down again, mirrorless still in the same basic range as before, though slightly up.

bythom cipa january 2016

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