The Modular Debate — Nikon FX


I've long written that I want a communicating, programmable, modular DSLR. I even presented my thoughts on this to Nikon executives back in early 2010. With the recent posting by Nikon Rumors of another modular DSLR patent by Nikon, the debate about whether "modular" is a good idea or not has reopened.

First, let's get one thing out of the way: products that go mass market have a tendency to move away from modular. It's really a cost and efficiency issue. When you're building millions of widgets you don't want any extraneous parts. Indeed, you want as few parts as possible. Look at smartphones. 

An iPhone 5s, for example, while being an extremely high-end and capable device, really boils down to: a battery, a single PC board with most of the smarts soldered on, a camera module, an LCD, a case, and maybe only a dozen or so other supporting components to assemble. The batteries are all now built in, not user changeable because these devices are following the tendency away from modular. A damaged front glass even means you have to replace the glass/digitizer/LCD together, as they're fused into one component. Back when we designed the original QuickCam, it had all of three dozen parts, and they came to us in five easy pieces (to assemble) from the sub-contractors. Fixing the original Quickcam was a matter of isolating which of the five pieces needed replacing, and replacing it. The natural tendency in technology is away from modular and into parts congregation and simplification.

That said, a D4 isn't a mass produced item, and it's also not one that any working pro wants to have to keep replacing every year or two just to get some small incremental advantage (and we still have a lot of pros using D3 series bodies because of that). Some high-end products should naturally gravitate the other direction from consumer products, where a base set is modified or enhanced by modules over time rather than being completely replaced.

So what does a true modular DSLR design do for us? 

Well, let's look at what's different between a decades-old F4 and a D4. Body? Not especially. Controls? Not really, though the newer cameras have more of them for obvious reasons. Mirrorbox/Viewfinder? Well, there have been some changes here, mostly with newer sensors (meter and focus) and overlays, but for the most part, highly similar. Lens mount? Heavens no. Shutter? Sure, we've had some small advancements here, too, but fundamentally would anyone really object if we were still using the F4 shutter? (Yes, flash users might raise their eyebrows, but I don't think Xenon gas-produced flash is much longer for the world, anyway. Imagine if you "lit" an LED system at initial shutter press and "unlit" it when you lift your finger: no real need for flash shutter synchronization.) 

What's (potentially) changing from camera to camera are: 

  1. Image sensor (image sensor)
  2. Data processing (EXPEED)
  3. Image storage (type, specification of cards)
  4. Communication with other systems (USB, WiFi, Ethernet, Bluetooth, wireless flash, etc.)
  5. Image display quality (rear LCD)
  6. Feature set (firmware)

#6 can be dealt with my "programmable" demand. #5 most of us can live with what we've got (plus all the external options). That leaves the first four, especially if we consider that focus and metering sensor chores are likely to migrate to the image sensor. Nikon's patent is basically for #1, though it wouldn't be that difficult to make the user-installable module do both #1 and #2. This would make the module more expensive at the benefit of making the module capable of more; a fair tradeoff, I think.

#3 is addressable by #4 ;~). What? Assuming you build communications right, there's no reason why you can't have external storage for a modular camera, and storage that changes with available technologies. This might require more temporary memory in the camera itself, but memory is relatively inexpensive as components go, and it gets cheaper over time. 

Most of the "no it'll never happen" comments I've seen seem to come because those people are discounting the potential benefit of a modular system done right. Okay, done right a modular sensor system allows you to:

  • Choose AA or no AA. Dealing with subjects that can trigger moire easily? Use the AA Bayer module. Shooting landscapes? Use the non AA Bayer module.
  • Choose color or monochrome. You get about a two-stop improvement in base ISO, you don't need the AA, and you get about a 50% improvement in detail (the last two combined give you more acuity), all else equal.
  • Choose Visible or Other Spectrums. UV, near IR, real IR, visible, or all of the above become possible with a switch of the sensor module. It'd be easy to sell into forensics providers, too.
  • Choose Pixel Density or Pixel Integrity. Want 104mp for high sampling? Or maybe you want 10mp for ready-for-newsroom images taken in low light. Both are possible with a sensor swap.
  • Choose Stills or Video. Technically, HD video only needs 1920 x 1080 pixels, and even 4K video is only 3640 x 2160. By limiting to the number of pixels needed you can transfer the information faster and minimize rolling shutter (or even eradicate it), plus you get rid of the sub-sampling issues with current DSLR video and get better low light response.
  • Choose DX or FX. An immediate answer to all those wanting a D4 type body with a DX sensor! Put the best DX sensor available into a module and you now have a pro-type DX camera available, with a built-in capability to upgrade to FX when you need it.
  • Choose Bayer or Post-Bayer. Because you can just replace the sensor (and data processing if you do as I suggest), the day that we get three-layer sensors is not a day you have to retire your camera if your camera is modular. 
  • Forget Relearning Your Camera. How many times have we had the same complaints over the years: the X button has moved, the size of the Y control is different, the grip changed, and so on? Okay, yes, there might be some new menu options that appear with each of the different sensor modules, but the basics of the camera don't change every time we get a new sensor. 

The usual way people claim that modular cameras won't happen is to use the argument that "Nikon would sell fewer cameras." That's a nonsensical argument, actually. If taken to the extreme, Nikon shouldn't make any cameras with interchangeable lenses, because they'd "sell more cameras" if you had to always buy camera/lens combinations (e.g. D800+14-24mm, D800+24-70mm, D800+70-200mm). Basically the world really works like this: if there's enough demand for different types of options (lenses), you really need to break that out as a modular component. If something is only used by a subset of the users, and they demand a high quality and flexibility, you should break it out as a modular component (e.g. flash). What I'm arguing is that sensors actually satisfy both those cases for prosumer and pro photographers. 

Personally, if a modular D4 existed, I'd have purchased:

  • The D4 base
  • A high-ISO capable sensor (e.g. 16mp)
  • A high-pixel count sensor (e.g. 36mp, no AA)
  • A monochrome sensor
  • A near-IR sensor
  • A video sensor

And I'd be first on the block to buy that Post-Bayer sensor module, too. More to the point, I would have bought two D4 base modules (instead of a D4 and a D800). Nikon would probably have gotten more money from me and others than they did (will) under the "every camera different" strategy they're following.

Instead of two modular D4s and all those modules that weren't available, I purchased a D4 and D800, and converted an older camera to IR. Which of these generates more money for Nikon? ;~)  

But here's another critical point: modular sensors are another lock in. Once I've got multiple F-mount lenses and D-mount sensors (and Super Radio-Controlled LEDFlashes ;~), I'm not going to jump ship to Canon, am I? 

Modular isn't something that'll happen at the D3200 level. Heck, not at the DX level at all, because those buyers are cost conscious first and foremost, even the "pro" ones who want a D400, and the markets are more mass consumer to start with, so would tend to benefit from less modularity, not more. 

But imagine a modular D800 and D4. Imagine that they share the same modules. That would be something very, very desirable to me. Let me quote Nikon's President: ""when it comes to interchangeable lens-type digital cameras, we need to question our ability to offer truly innovative functions and performance." Modular (and communicating, programmable) pro cameras answer that question, Kimura-san. While they don't answer the question at the lower end (CX and DX), they would almost certainly increase revenue and reputation at the high FX end.

Next up: what do to about DX and mass market interchangeable lens cameras.

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