The S Models

(commentary)

With all the rumors of a D800s update appearing in June, it’s time to remind people what Nikon usually means by an “s” update. 

The practice dates back into the 80’s, actually, and has had two basic uses: (1) a quick fix or addition that didn’t make it into the original model (e.g. N90 to N90s); and (2) an update to try to make a product with a long life cycle match up better with current feature sets mid-life.

In the digital age, we’ve had a few s’s, all basically the #2 use:

  • D300s — Added video and a second card slot
  • D3s — Added video and improved the sensor, minor other changes
  • D4s — All minor changes


Any D800s would likely be much like the D4s update: a mid-life upgrade to bring the camera up to current expectations. (By the way, this implies that the D800 is a four-year cycle camera, to be replaced by a full update in 2016.) Rumored changes include dropping the non-E model, EXPEED4 with moire suppression and sRaw support, adding Group AF ala D4s, and a newer version of the 36mp sensor. Nikon Rumors reports that it will also add built-in GPS, a new LCD, and have a change to the central AF sensor, which are not things that I’ve heard, but certainly still within the realm of a #2 change. 

The question with any mid-term update is whether it actually does keep the product competitive in the market. With the D300s that was not the case, and that was mostly due to the fact that sensor technology moved on and the D300s sensor was still stuck in 2006. That was a Nikon mistake, thinking that adding video support was more important than image quality improvements at high ISO values for that camera. 

With the D800, Nikon won’t have that problem. The D800, as it is sold today, is still arguably the best DSLR you can buy. Improvements and additions will just solidify that, at least temporarily. 

Generally if you have a Nikon DSLR and it gets a mid-term s update, there’s little reason to buy the update. Nikon is just trying to keep potential new users interested in it so that it continues selling. 

One example of where a lot of folk are getting the wrong idea about the mid-term update are those that have a D800 but are salivating over the possibility of sRaw. That’s because they’re getting thrown by the letters “r” “a” and “w” in the name. 

sRaw—first seen by Nikon users on the D4s—is not actually Bayer-type data. It’s YCbCr data, much like JPEG and TIFF. It’s also 11-bit data that has had a tone curve and in-camera white balance applied, meaning that the pixels are “cooked,” not raw. Because you have full values for each pixel location, the sRaw format doesn’t save much file space over Nikon Compressed NEF. If you’re interested in what sRaw really is, see this article on Rawdigger.

The primary gain from using sRaw over Compressed NEF would come only on batch processing large numbers of images. But that comes with only one-quarter the pixels (9mp) and potential image quality and converter issues. I’d suggest shooting NEF+JPEG Small or Medium instead. Better yet, just use a Df instead ;~).

It’s good that Nikon is pushing out a D800 update. Why they never pushed out a D700 mid-term update is another story. The recent Sony A7r, A7, A7s trio shows how a line of cameras can be defined slightly differently via only the sensor, create cost savings in parts and manufacturing, and still find different user bases. Think about what a Nikon lineup with the D800 body used for a 16mp, 24mp, and 36mp model would have done. Instead, we got Df, D610, D800, which is three different body/control styles and lower part duplication.

If anyone’s listening at Nikon: stick the 16mp sensor in that D800s body and offer a D800hs model, ASAP. The only thing you really have to change is the sensor, shutter, and frame rate, so it’s not as if that should take long given that those things already exist in another model. This won’t happen, of course, because (1) no one’s listening at Nikon; and (2) it would dramatically hurt the Df’s continued sales, which should tell them something. 

So the D800s is a good news/bad news proposition. Good news in that one of the few cameras that truly connected with Nikon photographers is getting a refresh. Bad news in that Nikon doesn’t have many of those “cameras that connect” because they aren’t listening to the user base very well.

So here’s the report card:

  • D300/D300s: initially A+, then a C, now an F (or at least an incomplete)
  • D700: initially A, now an F (dropped class, no longer shows up)
  • D3/D3s: Initially A+, then an A, still probably an A student even though it graduated
  • D3x: initially B, now a C and deep in debt and needing a makeover
  • D4/D4s: Initially B, now a B-, could imitate D3x by end of its career
  • D800/D800s: initially A+, still an A+ with all the rumored updates


So message to Nikon: why did/will the D3/D3s and D800/D800s upgrades work, but none of the others did? Oh, wait, it should be obvious: three of the students just disappeared, and one started at less than an A grade in the first place. Lesson? Don’t drop successful cameras, and don’t do lukewarm new generation models. I’m surprised that there is no one in Tokyo that can figure that out.

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