Watch for Closing Windows

Yes, the D300s replacement conversation continues. Ad infinitum, it seems, as we’re now three years into the “where is it” wait. The problem I see is this: the window is closing and Nikon may end up mis-timing a replacement launch if they’re not careful.

What am I talking about? 

Both Canon and Nikon made vague comments about future crop-sensor mirrorless camera systems at Photokina. It seems pretty clear to me that they’ll do what I’ve long expected them to do: take parts and costs out of low-end consumer DSLRs in order to remain competitive. This keeps their price points intact with the same gross profit margin (or better). 

Fujifilm made this transition (mostly by shutting down DSLR development and then years later starting mirrorless development). Olympus and Panasonic made this transition quite some time ago when they dropped the failing 4/3 initiative and started m4/3. More recently, Sony made the transition (though they still claim they’re committed to the original Alpha cameras, probably because they have a pile of inventory left over; Olympus made the same “commitment" to 4/3 when they stopped making new models ;~). 

In particular, the X-T1, E-M1, GH4, and A7 series have found positive acceptance amongst very serious and pro photographers. Samsung is trying to hone in on the action with its just-announced NX1. 

So I’m not really expecting many new DSLR Rebels and D3xxx/D5xxx cameras in the future, if any. Sales have already weakened there, and the trend line is obvious now. If we haven’t already reached the end of the low-end DSLR line, we’re within one iteration of it. Both Canon and Nikon will want to drive out the costs to their low-end, crop sensor cameras while keeping them competitive with both the mirrorless entries and their previous crop sensor DSLRs. 

That implies the following for any new Nikon mirrorless system: 

  • Minimum 24mp DX sensor
  • Focus performance that matches or exceeds the D3300
  • Smaller, lighter body
  • EVF instead of OVF, and thus on-sensor phase detect instead of off-sensor
  • No feature loss, but control simplification

The open question, of course, is lens mount. All the above can be done with the current F-mount—which means a thicker body than most mirrorless cameras (though note the D750’s slim profile other than the lens mount and hand grip)—or a new mount—which means that Nikon starts with a lens deficit. That’s true even if there’s an adapter for traditional F-mount lenses. Which is somewhat similar to the DX/FX problem Nikon still hasn’t taken care of: sure you can mount FX lenses on DX cameras, but there are missing "optimized" DX lenses in the lineup, and that’s been pushing Nikon DSLR owners to third-party lenses and sometimes to other systems entirely (the “leakage” problem I keep writing about). So starting without a full set of mirrorless lenses would be a big mistake, I think.

So let’s assume for a moment that we get a new low-end interchangeable lens camera from Nikon that has D3300 feature set, no mirror, D3300-like performance, and uses the current DX mount (e.g. same lenses). What does that imply about a D300s replacement?

Right. It means some people immediately begin to wait for the D300s replacement’s replacement. Why? Because they’ll perceive that they’re buying the end of an era. That’s the window closing shut. Basically, if Nikon sends out a signal that consumer DSLR DX is becoming consumer mirrorless DX, the implication is that mirrorless is the way things are going to be and thus any investment in a higher end DSLR body starts to look like it has a sell-by date on it that’s nearer rather than farther in the future. Should Nikon produce a D5 in 2015/2016 that’s also mirrorless (doubtful, but I’ll get to that in a minute), I’d consider the window shut. 

Meanwhile, over at Canon, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with an EOS M (their mirrorless camera) that better focus performance and an EVF wouldn’t fix. Voila, they’ve got the new Rebel. Window shutting again. 

So what to make of Akagi-san’s remarks at Photokina? After all, he said “you can expect some new DX lenses in the future. We haven’t forgotten about our DX customers.” 

I see two ways to interpret that:

  1. Nikon is oblivious to the closing window and will power on trying to iterate in the DX DSLR world.
  2. Nikon is likely to use the existing mount for mirrorless cameras, or at least have a “perfect” adapter. 

Still, let’s think about timing here. The D3300 should be up for renewal soon. The D300s is overdue for renewal. We have a bunch of possibilities:

  1. D3300 replacement goes mirrorless but comes out after the D300s replacement.
  2. D3300 replacement goes mirrorless and comes out before the D300s replacement.
  3. D3300 and D300s replacement are both mirrorless.
  4. D3300 replacement is still a DSLR

I think #4 would be a mistake, especially considering we’ve got D3100 and D3200 bodies still sitting on dealer shelves and Canon is hinting at moving on past DSLRs. If Canon moves first, Nikon loses. 

I think #3 is unlikely. It would require Nikon to have an entirely new focus system that’s exceptional in its performance. Such a system has to beat the X-T1, E-M1, and GH4, and by a clear margin. Otherwise, Nikon would have a camera and a lens problem on their hands that will provoke even more leakers.

So here’s the high probability: if a D300s successor is going to come out as a DSLR—which I suspect (and hope) it will at the moment—it has to happen before Nikon tips their mirrorless hand. Anything else is suboptimal. Given the usual launch timing windows, that means no D300s successor by the end of February 2015 tells us that Nikon completely and totally dropped the ball. They’ve already been fumbling it along. Now they’re quickly coming to a point where they would lose control completely.

I noted earlier that I thought a mirrorless D5 is doubtful. My suspicion is that a D5 will be hybrid. That means OVF/EVF, much as Fujifilm has been playing with. And it means that we keep the performance on the OVF side (and maybe improve it some more) while basically making the Live View side into a full-fledged and useful mirrorless option. 

Personally, that’s not what I want in a D5. (You all know what I want: communicating and programmable at a minimum, modular would be better.) But I think Nikon’s targets these days are dramatically narrower in scope and mostly iterative, and that’s the percentage bet.

An aside: my initial examination and use of the D750 makes me guess that it was a bit rushed to market. The not secured WiFi, the oddities in the firmware (e.g. Focus Priority in AF-C will let you take out of focus photos ;~), plus the last minute marketing that wasn’t quite up to snuff; all are indications of a rush to get the camera to Photokina. Why that is, I don’t know. The D750 wasn’t exactly the camera needed at Photokina: the D300s replacement coupled with new DX lenses was. Did we get a last minute swap of schedules? 

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