What to Make of DX in 2015

(commentary)

It should seem pretty clear that Nikon wants you to buy an FX camera: they make more models and more lenses for the full frame side of the photography coin after all. Beyond that, the clarity in Nikon’s lineup disappears. What does Nikon actually want the rest of you to buy, and why? 

Most of us asking for a D400 want DX to be a system that can stand alone on its own. That there should be a full line of choices in both DX cameras and DX lenses. We’ll give up a stop of DOF isolation and dynamic range (all else equal) for a corresponding cost and size reduction. 

I think we can say clearly that Nikon has failed to deliver for the serious photographer crowd.

Instead, what Nikon has mostly delivered is a consumer line of DX cameras that tend to pile on the gimmicky side of photography (Effects mode, for example) coupled with convenience lenses (18-xx and 55-xx variable aperture zooms). 

I’m getting ready for my near-annual visit to Africa, so I’m once again contemplating what I bring. Airline weight and size restrictions get tougher every year, so a D4s with a 600mm f/4 is starting to get beyond the realm even I can consider. Beyond the cost factor, I’m having a tougher time getting a full-on FX system into something I can deal with transport-wise. Theses days I also often end up paying weight penalties, despite minimizing things like clothing ;~). 

A really good DX body (e.g. D400) with a 400mm f/4 PF or even f/5.6 PF would be highly welcome, but instead I’m stuck with something like the D7200 and the 80-400mm. Not terrible, but not quite the level I’d like it to be, either. And those consumer bodies take a beating in the savannah. Buffer depth on the D7100 got in the way, too, though as I’m testing the D7200 I think it might prove adequate. 

Increasingly, I’m thinking that I should probably reduce my gear closet down to just two camera systems, and more and more my thinking tends to be m4/3 and full frame would be those two systems. Too bad Olympus won’t have the 300mm f/4 ready in time for this year’s trip, or else it would be an absolute no-brainer to bring the E-M1 and that lens. 

Nikon’s getting squeezed in the middle. Sony’s A7 push is bringing prices for full frame down into top DX territory. Olympus/Panasonic’s m4/3 push has brought a fully fleshed out smaller system into reality, replete with lens choices Nikon doesn’t come close to matching in DX. Simply put, I can pack a far smaller and lighter m4/3 system today that comes close to matching what I can do with the FX cameras. Close, but not quite there yet. But soon. 

Most of you reading this can’t be a two-system owner. You have to choose one. That compromise position for you ought to be DX (APS). But Nikon is slowly fumbling that position away and letting the two sides (affordable full frame and competent small frame) squeeze the profits right out of Nikon’s cow. Heck, Fujifilm’s even pushing on one side of the cow with their own APS system that now has a far better set of lenses than DX produced (unless, of course, you want convenience zooms ;~). 

That’s not to say that the D3300, D5500, and D7200 aren’t fine cameras. They’re excellent performers—my reviews of the last two should appear shortly—only they have a lot of cruft and a few shortcomings for serious shooters and you almost immediately go to third party lenses to fill gaps unless you’re a total convenience shooter. 

But even that convenience shooter is getting tempted elsewhere these days. Consider the Sony RX10 or the Panasonic FZ1000: 4K video, an excellent, fast lens that almost makes up for the sensor size difference, all in one convenient DSLR-like body. Realistically, the RX10 isn’t bigger and heavier than a D3300 with the 18-140mm mounted on it. 

Nikon’s bread-and-butter line (DX) is more and more feeling like a throwback to another time and less as something viable for the current or future buyer. It’s a good thing that the image quality is so darned excellent on the Nikon DX bodies and Canon is mostly doing the same slow, edited roll with crop sensors as Nikon, otherwise it would be game over. 

A lot of people don’t remember the camera world of the 1980’s. Nikon was sluggish to respond to new world of autofocus. They immediately lost market share and probably would have been the third place mount if Honeywell’s suit against Minolta didn’t cause Minolta so many problems and distractions that they squandered their initial leadership in autofocus SLRs. Canon responded to Minolta faster and marketed better, which led them to the leadership position in the ILC market. Not just leadership, but dominate leadership. 

Who at Nikon thinks they aren’t repeating history? 

Nikon is not a nimble company. They seem to often need others to first show them where the market really is (the D1 being an exception). Which tends to make them late to market, and then their sluggishness in corporate decision making tends to make them even later. On the good side, what they do end up making is very good equipment with very state-of-the-art image quality. More and more, though, the buzz in the market is away from the pure image quality side of things and more towards other things. Witness what Sony is doing with the A7 models. The A7rII announced last week is a plethora of technology buzzwords. That said, despite using the same sensors as Nikon in many of their models, I wouldn’t put Sony’s image quality at let alone above Nikon’s. So the buzz those A7 cameras are getting is coming from something other than pixel purity yet still resonating enough to cause concern at Nikon HQ, I’m sure. 

Given the current state of things, I suspect that if Nikon doesn’t manage to do something dramatic in the DX arena, I probably won’t own any Nikon DX gear next year. I guess another Spring Cleaning is coming soon. More and more of my pro friends and consumers I talk to are coming to similar conclusions. 

Some will just do what Nikon wants them to and move to FX. But even there Nikon is looking a bit stodgy these days. The D5 and the changes it points to had better be special when it arrives later this year (my best guess at the moment is somewhat later than the expected August announcement, though still in 2015).

But here’s the thing: Nikon can’t live off of FX alone. Indeed, if we jettisoned all the other camera and lens things at Nikon other than FX, Nikon would be a dramatically smaller company, less than half its current size. Nikon needs to win both the low-end camera consumer, but the price-conscious serious photographer. 

Here and there they have something that looks like it is winning enough users, sure. The Coolpix P900 and D5500 come to mind. But when you put those few winners together it’s difficult to see how they’re building a customer for life. Do we really expect a P900 user to buy a D5500, then eventually buy into the FX line? Fujifilm has this better figured out with the X series than Nikon does with their random series. And things get worse when we use other models: J5 to D3300 to D610 anyone? 

Where does Nikon’s future FX customer come from? DX if they do it right. Some other competitor if they do it wrong ;~). 

I keep waiting for the announcement that makes Nikon’s product lines all make sense together. I wonder how long I’ll have to wait...

 

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