Tough Camera Questions Answered

(commentary)

Is DX (APS) dead? No. 

Are you sure? Yes.

How can you say that? Because of the 17m or more interchangeable lens cameras that will be sold this year, most of them will be DX/APS. Price/Performance matters. DX/APS has sat in a sweet spot position for quite some time, and will continue to for the foreseeable future. Yes, it's being nipped at on both ends, but it's still a pretty wide sweet spot.

But won't FX (full 35mm frame) eventually be as cheap? Not any time soon. The premise behind this notion is the belief that semiconductors always go down in price. That's not quite correct. Moore's law and all the other factors that go into the progression of semiconductors tell us that you can reduce the size of the transistor and either do the same in a smaller package that costs less to produce, or do more in the same size package, which increases performance. The CPU makers tend to walk a combination line where they add some performance but also reduce size. This doesn't work for image sensors. FX will always use the same amount of silicon as it does today. This plays out in at least three different ways that make FX sensors more expensive than DX, and enough so that we won't be seeing a D3300 at US$600 that's FX any time soon. As I've been telling people for awhile: look at the D7100 and D610 for the differential: these are basically the same cameras with different sensors (not enough else is different to justify the price differential). Conclusion? Equivalent FX cameras would be US$800 more than DX cameras at retail at the moment. 

So why is Nikon doing so little to improve our DX options? I have no idea. But the floods in Thailand certainly changed their 2012/2013 plans for DX, as DX cameras are all built there, as are a number of DX lenses. It also doesn't help that Nikon overbuilt the existing consumer DX models when Thailand's production resumed (Nikon claimed they didn't want to be at risk of low inventory should the floods recur, but I suspect that they just ran into the stalling DLSR market).

So what should I buy? What you need. Or, if you have enough disposable income: what you want.

But FX tests so much better than DX, shouldn't I buy FX no matter what? No. Anyone looking at raw numbers to make a decision about a purchase needs to step back. I'll put it in really simple terms: if all you need is a snapshot, is there ANY evidence that ANY smartphone can't provide that for you? No. So why get overly concerned about actual camera test numbers? Try a couple out a couple of cameras and compare the results. If you can see the difference in snapshots and that difference is meaningful to you, buy the better one that you see. This gets trickier the higher and higher you move up the ladder, and the more you move beyond snapshots, though. If you're looking for a carry everywhere camera that's capable of producing nice looking 8x10" images in a range of conditions, there probably are some cameras that fail to hit that bar (e.g., cheap small sensor compacts), and there are more readily observable differences between the choices. But other factors enter into the picture, too. Just using Nikon: their two carry-everywhere cameras at the top of the game are the P7800 and Coolpix A. The Coolpix A would win hands down on basic image quality, though on an 8x10" print that advantage would be less visible than on a much bigger one. But the Coopix A doesn't have a zoom lens, a swivel LCD, a built-in viewfinder, and a lot of other features that are on the P7800. And the prices are very different. So you're balancing quality, price, and features to make a decision. The same thing applies to the DX/FX choice, only there price is one of the biggest balancing factors and the differential in performance can be low enough that most can't see it for their use.

But I shot 35mm film, so shouldn't I get an FX camera? You have an emotional tie, not necessarily a rational one. If your goal in film was "as big a print as I can achieve" and that's still your goal, then maybe FX is a wise choice. Depends a bit on what you're shooting (the answer for landscape and wildlife shooters would likely be different). But if you're more casual and just want a camera that can be used for photo sharing (Facebook, Flickr, email, etc.) or some modest sized prints (up to 13x19" or so), and you're not shooting black cats in a coal mine at night, DX probably gets the job done just fine. It did for Nikon shooters from 1999 to 2007, after all, and the DX cameras have only gotten better since then. Remarkably better. 

Do I even need DX? Maybe not. I'd tend to argue that if your top parameters are no more than 11x14" prints, no higher than ISO 3200, and no wider than 24mm and no longer than 300mm, then there are plenty of cameras with even smaller sensors that will do what you need. This all gets back to correctly evaluating and ranking your needs (priorities). You can always find a product that's better at something if you look hard enough. But if you don't need that something, who cares? I give you permission to only buy what you need, not what your neighbor will think is cool and drool worthy. 

I don't care. I'm going to buy an FX camera anyway. But which one? Nikon didn't make this easy. I'm assuming that the true pro cameras (D4, D3x) are out of the question due to their high prices. So that leaves the D610, Df, and D800, all of which fit into a narrow enough price range that many people would consider them all. Even if their budget was D610, the Df and D800 aren't all that much of a stretch. Much of the differences will prove to be emotional ones ("the D610 is a consumer camera" or "the Df is more like what I used to use" or "the D800 is the best DSLR out there"), so be careful. The real difference between the three is the sensor, and it's a Goldilocks-type problem that different people with different needs will answer differently. But frankly, if you can't take a great photo with any of these cameras, you should have spent more money training yourself to be a better photographer. So choose on emotion or sensor, your choice. 

But Europe is Different in pricing, what should I do? Wait. It seems clear that NikonUSA and Nikon Europe have different selling strategies when it comes to pricing. In the US the initial price is pretty much what Nikon wants to see the camera sell for. Sometimes we get small instant rebates to goose sales, but generally we don't see big drops in price until a camera gets to end-of-life, at which point we might eventually see a 25% overall drop from initial price. In Europe Nikon seems to be pricing very high initially, then letting dealers try to find the price/demand equilibrium point. So what happens in the UK and most of Europe is that we get higher-than-expected initial prices, followed very quickly by a dramatic drift downwards in price. That downward drift is bigger than anything we ever see in the US. The longer you wait to buy in Europe, the lower the price you'll pay. So Europe seems to be conditioning people to wait to buy cameras, US is saying "buy any time." 

What if I want a D400? Wait. Or buy a D7100 and learn to not hold down the shutter release for seconds on end. 

But I want a D400. Why hasn't Nikon made one? See my answer above: I don't know for sure. I am sure that Nikon knows that you want an update to the D300, but it's not clear why it hasn't happened. Tech cycles are tricky, and they get trickier for something that's supposed to be at the top of heap. If for some reason you miss getting a top-end product out when you needed to, you sometimes have to wait a cycle. A D400 was always likely going to be a 24mp camera. But now all the DX cameras are 24mp. So a D400 will need something beyond just being able to do 24mp at 8fps to look like it's on top. Why did Nikon miss a cycle? The floods in Thailand were certainly an issue that came into play. The poor response to the D300s might have made them rethink how much they needed to do on such a camera. Having a top end 24mp DX DSLR before 24mp even made it to FX would have been an issue, too. Canon's delays on their pro crop sensor body didn't put much pressure on Nikon. Failure of Sony's SLT models to steal market share also didn't put any pressure on Nikon. Thus, I suspect that a lot of factors came into play and Nikon probably decided to skip a cycle until they could get a D400 to be a strong step forward that will have some lasting power on the market. Nikon likely sees you as impatient. You see Nikon as slow. Neither of those are likely the right judgment ;~). As of today, the missing D300 replacement has to be the most glaring gap in their DSLR lineup. If Nikon doesn't see and understand that, I'd be very surprised.

So when will we see a D400? Nothing substantive has crossed my desk about a prototype lately, so not soon, I'd say. The next launch window for significant products is Jan/Feb 2014, the one after that Aug/Sept 2014, which is pre-Photokina. I'd be seriously wondering what's up with Nikon if they didn't get to Photokina 2014 with something in the D400 space. 

So Nikon's going to go out of business, then? A missing product or two won't put them out of business. They're amongst the most tightly run ships in Japan, and this is a company that has weathered downturns in major businesses before. They're also one of only three profitable camera companies left (Canon, Leica, Nikon). It's true that they have some cost issues to deal with, but that's mostly because they're set up as a growth company and there is no growth. They've got to lower SG&A expenses, for instance, which is starting to look very high given no growth. 

Maybe the answer to the missing D400 is to switch to an Olympus OM-D E-M1? I like the E-M1 a lot, but I'd suggest that the D7100 would be a better answer for most needing a D300 replacement. This is especially true of wildlife and sports photographers. 

Will Nikon make an m4/3 camera? No. 

Why not? Because smart companies in dominant positions in the market don't enable competitors. Note that Olympus says they'll make 660,000 m4/3 cameras in their current fiscal year, 100k of them E-M1's (that's if we believe them; they rarely hit any projection they make). Nikon will likely make somewhere near a half million Nikon 1's, and they'll make at least 4,500,000 DX DSLRs. Olympus' market share in interchangeable lens cameras for the year would be 3.5%. Nikon's would be 33%. Canon's is slightly higher if we believe their projections: 43%. The two owners of 76% of the market aren't going to do anything that might help the five that have the other 24%. Bottom line: Olympus would have to prove that m4/3 is the future of camera sales to get Canon or Nikon to join them. Hasn't happened yet. Not happening now. Might not ever happen. I know fan boys hate it when I write things like this, but Olympus' camera group is on the ropes and bleeding. They haven't made a profit in five years and are rapidly shrinking in size, all while continuing to show SG&A expenses unheard of in consumer products. Anyone running true due diligence on Olympus' camera group would probably say "not savable." So anyone who would think that Nikon or Canon would make an m4/3 camera at this point just hasn't looked at the numbers. (Don't get me wrong. I love the OM-D cameras. This says nothing about m4/3 products, per se, but those products aren't selling in a large enough volume to justify the costs Olympus piles up in producing them. And no, I'm not predicting Olympus to go out of the camera business, either. At the moment they're simply poised to get smaller. 100k E-M1's in six months isn't going to trouble Canon or Nikon too much.)

Okay, so Nikon will just keep making Nikon 1, then? It seems so. But it also seems that Nikon has realized that their "greater than DSLR price for less than DSLR performance" strategy isn't exactly popping Nikon 1 cameras off the shelf. The AW1 introduction was interesting, as it puts a twist on the Nikon 1 line. But I think we need to see the J3/S1/V2 followups to really understand what Nikon thinks the future of this line is. Those followups need to be better cameras at lower prices, IMHO.  

Isn't the future mirrorless? Yes and no. I've already written that the future is EVF. Why? Because semiconductor parts have declining cost paths with fewer parts than mechanical systems, and cost cutting is going to be needed to keep DSLR-type cameras affordable. But I'm not so sure the mirror is going away ;~). I've seen several interesting proposals that keep a full mirror, but drop all the rest of the mess that's involved with the focus system. We're likely get to mirrorless DSLRs in steps, with the first step being a rethink of the mirror and focus system relationship. Sony already tried a variation of that with the SLT cameras, but there are more variations coming, I think. 

But why not just put focus in the imaging sensor and be done with it? A rule of thumb is that random electronic migration within a sensor increases enough with each 5°C change in temperature to change the image data visibly. What happens if you leave the imaging sensor on all the time? You increase heat production. Now this is a tricky space. Most people don't leave their compact and mirrorless cameras on with the imaging sensor running constantly, as to do so you'd be chewing through batteries, especially if you were outputting that to the current EVFs. But the more you shoot, the more you put heat impacts into play. The Sony NEX models are notorious for overheating in video mode, and I've seen firsthand that in low light, you get worse results at the end of your one-hour of video than in the first minute. Thus, you could do what you suggest, but you might be adding complexity by having to put a cooling system into the camera. Other issues come up with on-sensor phase detect, too. We're still a ways from having DSLR focus performance in large sensor mirrorless cameras.

That sounds interesting, but isn't the camera industry dead and dying? No. It's hurting because the interchangeable lens camera market has matured and smartphones have basically killed the low end compact camera market. It seems clear that the camera companies have to figure out some answers, but I'm pretty sure they're trying to figure out what those answers are. One (or more) of three things will happen: (1) we'll have a repeat of the film camera market where there's a long steady decline with two companies dominating what's left of the market; (2) one or more of the Japanese companies will come out with something that reignites the market and sets off a new growth wave; or (3) another disruptor, likely Western, will appear that shows the real future of photography and the Japanese companies will all quickly try to follow. (Please note that the Nikon 1, EOS M, OM-D, NEX, A7/A7r, 6D/D610, Df are not #2; the closest anyone has come to #2 would be the QX and RX lines from Sony, and both have issues that keep them from "reigniting" the market.) 

Wait. Didn't I read that the QX were the most-preordered cameras ever by dealers, and aren't the RX100 and RX1 big hits? Beware the Internet amplification effect (IAE). Supposedly the OM-D E-M5 has been a hot, hit camera, but Olympus only sold 250,000 total m4/3 cameras in the first six months of their fiscal year, and that worked out to  about 200k Pen-type cameras and about 50,000 E-M5). A camera can appear to be "hot" because loud voices are praising it and others are repeating that message, but the IAE doesn't always translate to sales numbers that change the marketplace. I don't have solid sales numbers on the QX/RX at retail, but in talking with dealers, they're doing "okay." None said that those models are driving any big growth in sales for them. I happen to think that the D800 is the best DSLR out there and it was the most pre-ordered and talked about camera in the first half of 2012, but Nikon has sold less than a half million of them in over a year-and-a-half. Ultimately, the numbers don't lie. Fujifilm is losing money on cameras. Olympus is losing money on cameras. Panasonic is losing money on cameras. Pentax is losing money on cameras. Sony is losing money on cameras. If there were a product from any of them that was really turning around the industry, it would be turning around their numbers from loss to profit. Meanwhile Canon and Nikon have done a lot of cost cutting to keep profitable on declining unit volumes. Put another way: products can be quite good and generate enthusiasm amongst users (witness Fujifilm X, Olympus OM-D, Sony NEX/RX/A) but don't necessarily sell in large enough quantities to change the status quo. I happen to think that many of those other products are very good, and because of that, it's causing Canon and Nikon to stay on top of their game, but I don't believe that we've seen the product that's going to start growing the camera market again. 

So what should I buy? I'll have a more specific answer soon, but the broad general answer is this: we've got an enormous number of highly capable cameras on the market at the moment. Everything from pocket dynamos (RX100, GR, Coolpix A, etc.) to SLR-type cameras that stretch into what many would think of as Medium Format territory (D800, A7r, etc.). If you're holding out for something more, you sure are pretty finicky in your photographic tool needs. The bottom line is very simple: today's options are varied and quite capable of great photography. If you aren't taking great photographs, it isn't because there isn't a camera that can let you do it. The cameras are there. Are you? 

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