Do We Need a D6?

Now that Nikon has officially acknowledged that the D6 is coming, and likely well in time for the 2020 Olympics, the question is simple: do we need it?

D6 24 70VR front

My answer might surprise you: maybe. Probably not if it's filled with new tech. 

I really find nothing particularly problematic with my D5 for event, sports, and some wildlife use. Sure, it's a DSLR so its focus sensors don't extend all the way across the image area, but I don't think a D6 is going to change that (though note my comment below). 

To explain my answer, let's start at the sensor. The D1h, D2h, D3, D4, and D5 all had one thing in common: they produced fewer pixels than the more common cameras of their time. While this got a little out of hand with the D2h when it was only 4mp versus the Canon 1D's 8mp, good reasons exist as to why the pro PJ/sports camera have tended to be underpixeled: (1) they perform better in low light; and (2) photographers on assignment have low resolution bars coupled with very short deadlines. 

That first reason is going away a bit now that we have BSI sensors and the overall base level of sensor tech has stalled and sensors are evening out in ability. At most of the ISO levels I tend to use, the 24mp, 36mp, and 45mp sensors all look about the same these days when output at the same size newspapers, magazines, and Web sites are demanding. That said, when you push insanely high with the ISO, there's nothing better in Nikon/Sony realm than the D5. 

The second reason has everything to do with time management and image transfer. I've written this before, but most of us shooting sports and events have really tight deadlines. Really tight. If you're scrambling to get your picture used by the wire services, you'd better be the first to upload. That means putting at least some images out not long after a sporting event starts, and certainly getting solid, evocative images out by the end of half-time (or the first quarter/period interval). 

When I shot the NCAA Lacrosse Championship earlier this year, my images of the post game celebration literally went onto the winning school's site within moments of me uploading them, and it was all I could do to try to turn that around within minutes after I finished shooting the celebration. There were several other photographers still in the press room trying to finish their uploads as I was leaving. I think they were using higher megapixel cameras ;~). In fact, I know two of them were.

So when time and transfer come into play, megapixels are not your friend. The next day after the championships, I pushed another 1GB of JPEGs up to my client. Very few of those images got used for anything, because they simply weren't timely enough. (There is usefulness in being complete and having all your shot images in the client/agency archive, because you never know when an image you took previously will become useful for some reason. But that usefulness is not why they hired you in the first place. ;~)

Shooting JPEG helps with the size issues, but it's still a game of bytes. A JPEG Fine Large from a D5 is about 10.5MBs. From a D850 that expands to 22MBs, or basically double. If I shoot 1000 images in the first half of a football game, the difference between ingesting those D5 images and D850 images can be measured in minutes (and is worse if you use Lightroom ;~). Likewise, when you push your selected, annotated, and cropped images back out to your client, you don't want double the upload time, either. Even shooting a D5 it's rare that I make it out of half-time in the press box back to the field in time for the 3rd quarter kickoff.

So what's my expectation for the D6? I'd be happy with 24mp, actually. Give me BSI and all the other newer sensor technologies tuned the same way the previous D# cameras have been tuned, and I'd be more than happy. A few more pixels gives me a little more cropping flexibility without chewing up card space and ingest/upload time.

Unfortunately, the expectations—particularly among the Sony A9m2 prognosticators—is that we'll get 36mp in the next high-speed pro camera generation. The leaked Sony Semiconductor IMX435 sensor details seem to suggest that a useful high-speed camera with a 36mp sensor is possible today, and some rumor sites also point to the 48mp IMX311 as a possibility. But I'm not at all sure that I want all those pixels to deal with in my PJ/sports camera.

What I want more than pixels is speed. No, not higher frame rates. I stopped using the 20 fps frame rate on the Sony A9 for the same reason I don't want more pixels: if I shoot 2x the images I normally do, it takes more than 2x the time to ingest, select, and output my images. Why "more than 2x"? Because you'll spend more time looking at a sequence of images to figure out which one is the one you're going to send, or you'll send more images and let someone else deal with figuring out which one to use.

No, speed is now defined by something different: how fast can I crop, annotate, and upload an image?

Technically, I can do all those things from my D5. These issues make the speed of doing that problematic, though: (1) cropping means I create even more images in the DCIM folder, and also means I have to remember which one is which since I don't have the ability to usefully rename them, either. Adding a star rating helps a bit, but only a bit. Why can't I crop in camera, give the image a meaningful name, and SAVE it to a SELECTS folder? (2) annotating is done with the touch screen right now, and while the D5's is quite good for that compared to anything else that exists today, the implementation for doing that for an already shot image is awkward at best. What I wouldn't give for a Siri-like capability "Hey Nikon, add the caption "Max Borghi scores go-ahead touchdown from quarterback Anthony Gordon in first quarter of the WSU versus Northern Colorado game at Martin Stadium in Pullman, WA." (3) uploading directly from the camera doesn't generally work well unless I've got a wired Ethernet connection to my ftp server. Not all stadia, and certainly not all shooting positions, have such capabilities, though the D5 has the ability to make that connection if it's present.

So far what you're seeing from my list—24mp, speed features oriented to client upload—would only come from talking closely to the prospective users of said camera, and savvy users, at that. A lot of the D5 ranks are filled with photographers who just took what they got from Nikon, and then grumble under their breath that they don't understand something or vaguely want "more," but can't enumerate that.

One area that will come up with any camera in this range is focus performance. 

I'm on record as saying that I believe that the D5 has the most consistent and usable focus system of any PJ/sports camera currently (and yes, the Sony A9 is getting close, but I find it tends to drift a bit from absolute focus). That's not to say that the D5 is perfect or that it can't be improved. I wonder, for instance, if putting phase detect also on the viewfinder sensor* wouldn't allow the D5 to track a subject outside the dedicated focus area. The camera already has an uncanny ability to track a subject outside the dedicated focus area and back via the color information produced by that sensor: perhaps this can be improved to build an even more functional focus ability.

*Technically, it might have to be on the focus screen. But yes, there's a patent for that ;~).

What was most useful on the D5 (compared to the D4) when it came to focus though was the addition of AF-ON+AF Area combinations for various programmable buttons. While it was a bit difficult to get used to at first (just as using AF-ON for back button focus is in the first place) this became second nature with a bit of practice. Note that such a feature is just another example of doing something useful to solve a user problem, not adding tech or pixels or absolute speed. 

So that's sort of my answer to the question I pose in the headline. If Nikon focuses on the tech side in creating a D6, they missed the point and I don't need one. We don't need more pixels (at least not many), we don't need higher frame rates, we don't even really need any more dynamic range. What we need are things that improve the user experience and let us get our jobs done faster. If Nikon continues to give us that, then maybe the D6 is what we need.

text and images © 2019 Thom Hogan
portions Copyright 1999-2019 Thom Hogan-- All Rights Reserved
Follow us on Twitter: @bythom, hashtags #bythom, #dslrbodies