Nikon DSLR Weak Points

Nikon should be embarrassed that such an article has to exist, but it does. These days, crowd sourced data via the Internet allows us a much better idea of products that have common problems. Herewith my summary of recent Nikon produce woes you need to watch out for.

  • D4/D4s — The number one complaint I've heard and which shows up in Internet fora from time to time is that the small thumb sticks for focus control break. While every other control and button on a D4 or D4s is built like a brick, I've lost count of how many folk have written to me to tell me that they've broken one or both of the two thumb sticks. The problem here is that Nikon has this tendency to blame "abuse" and charge for repairs these days at the slightest provocation. My response would be that the thumb stick design is clearly not designed for pro use. It's a part waiting to break.

  • D800/D800E — Initially, we had a large number of cameras that had issues with left autofocus sensor positioning. I estimated that number to be at least 20% of the first few months' production, and it may very well be higher. Nikon's "fix" for the problem tended to produce bodies that have a high degree of front focus that needs to be corrected by AF Fine Tune. But the "doesn't focus right" complaints have continued long after the initial problem was dealt with (silently) by Nikon. A large number of these turn out to be false positives, but there still seems to be a general theme of weak left-side focusing on D800 models. Be aware that buying a used D800 will put you at Nikon's mercy should it prove to have a focus issue: warranties don't transfer, and Nikon has never publicly affirmed the exact problem, so you're likely to be charged for fixing autofocus on a D800, even though they issued a brief and vague notice on the problem.

    I've also gotten a number of reports of dropped D800's being determined by Nikon as "beyond repair." This happens because a particular section on the back side of the metal frame breaks, and when it does, it would require complete teardown to parts and a complete rebuild from parts. Worse still, a broken frame can result in the sensor, lens mount, and AF system being misaligned, making the camera unusable as well as unfixable. This is the first time I've heard of Nikon's metal framing ever breaking like this, and I know NikonUSA forwarded this information to corporate. Indeed, the D810 frame is thicker and takes less of a turn in the same area where the D800 frame breaks, so it seems clear to me that Nikon changed the design, and probably to avoid broken frames. Further, all of the D800 cracks are completely across the frame (separation), and all are in a small area just adjacent to a tight bend on a thin portion. It’s unclear to me how “force” could produce such a break, and it seems also clear that it would take a huge amount of force. I would expect that cameras with broken frames would show other damage, but that has not been the case in all of the broken frame complaints I’ve examined (eight+). In two, there seems to be no other damage. A metallurgist I consulted claimed that he saw signs of improper casting.

    Finally, D800’s are notorious for the 10-pin connector breaking off the camera body and receding inside, which renders it virtually unusable. This, too, is a design problem, not a user abuse issue, though Nikon repair will generally immediately attempt to charge you for repairs.

  • D600 — Early production D600's were prone to excess lubricant being splattered onto the AA filter by the shutter, plus huge buildups of large dust that the sensor-cleaning mechanism can't handle. The latter tended to be debris, probably from a defective mirror or shutter mechanism shedding coatings. It often takes a few thousand images for the problem to become obvious, and even with a manual cleaning, the problem recurs. But this problem is tricky. Again there's the false positive problem at play. A little bit of lubricant showing upon on the AA filter from time to time is common on modern high-end cameras (both Canon and Nikon have had this issue). So everyone hears about a "dust/oil" problem, looks carefully at their camera, and sees some dust and some lubricant, and thinks that their camera is one of the problem ones when it might not be. Then there's the excess debris that tends to build after a few thousand shots. There are plenty of reports that multiple cleanings each time this resurrects eventually conquers the problem. Then we have many reports of cameras being sent in for cleaning that get shutters replaced and then are fine. I suspect we Nikon had three levels of "problem" here, with the first (lubricant getting on the filter) being common, the second (excessive, repeated dust/debris buildup after lots of shots) being less common, and the third (shutter needing replacement for some unknown reason) being less common still. Simple thing: learn to clean your sensor and do it regularly. If you have to do that excessively or it spirals beyond your ability to control, send the camera to Nikon for repair. Nikon eventually issued a service advisory on the D600, offering to inspect and repair the shutter/mirror mechanism to get rid of the excess lubricant/debris problem. 

  • D750 — Many wedding photographers shooting into the light began complaining about a dark band at the top of the image in flare situations. The problem seems to come from the position of the AF sensor system in the lower mirror box and the fact that the reflections off the condenser lens on top of the AF sensors are occurring if it sits up too high. The problem only occurs at a very specific angle of any backlighting, and is not lens specific. However, users can’t see the problem through the viewfinder (i.e. it doesn’t happen with the mirror down), which is a problem. If you’re shooting into backlit situations, try using Live View, and if you see the band, adjust the camera angle down or up slightly. Nikon eventually issued a service advisory on this problem, and offered to inspect and repair affected cameras free of charge. Repaired cameras have a black dot at the bottom of their tripod mount socket.

    A second and third round of repairs on the D750 dealt with shutter issues, with Nikon completely replacing the shutter unit.

  • D810 — Initial cameras had the tendency to over-produce white dots (hot pixels) in scenarios where they shouldn’t. Nikon issued a service bulletin on this and repaired affected cameras free of charge.

  • D7000 — We've long had unsubstantiated reports of "doesn't focus right." I'm relatively convinced that very few D7000 cameras have actual focus problems, certainly no more than would be normally expected (i.e. low single digit percentages). As sensor resolution went up and Nikon tinkered with changes to the autofocus system, I believe much of the chatter here is false positives. Bottom line: learn how the autofocus system really works, learn how to test correctly, and if you still have problems, deal with Nikon customer support and repair.

  • D3100, D3200, D3300, D3400, D3500, D5100, D5200, D5300, D5500, and D5600 — These cameras do not have AF Fine Tune. I've seen enough lenses that need AF Fine Tune on these cameras, which results in them not achieving "optimal" focus. Unfortunately, that's to be expected with low end consumer goods: tolerance is something that you sometimes have to live with. Your only option is to get Nikon to recalibrate your camera/lenses. 

  • D5200, D5300, and D7100 — These cameras share the same Toshiba-fabbed sensor, and that sensor is notorious for producing banding in the deep shadows (patterned noise very deep in the shadows, generally not seen in images). The problem seems to be more prevalent on the D5200, the first camera to use the sensor. If you try to lift underexposures or deep shadow tones too much, you'll see a clear column/row structure start to appear in the pixel data. Generally, this isn't an issue for images shot normally. But be careful if you print large and do lots of post processing. Also, Active D-Lighting has a tendency to bring the banding up into visibility in extreme contrast situations, so I'd suggest you avoid it.

Corollary: Some Nikon DSLRs have rock-solid reputations: D3, D3s, D3x, D5, D500, D700, D850, D7200, D7500. 

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