Nikon Hits and Misses

We’re coming into the Christmas buying season and a lot of you are thinking about what products you might want to buy. I’m pretty sure that Nikon will be aggressive with discounting here in the US having missed their original launch window for a new camera in the last quarter, but when those discounts start to kick in is currently unknown (rumor says mid-October, and that seems to be confirmed in Europe). 

I thought it wise to break down Nikon’s entire interchangeable lens camera lineup and give you my current assessment of where things stand. I’ll be doing each list in ascending price order.

First, the clear, big hits:

  • D500 — It was a powerhouse (with a few minor flaws) when it was introduced, it’s still the same today. There isn’t a better DX (or APS-C crop sensor) body available from anyone. Top flight autofocus and handling are the key components here, so much so that people tend to call it the “baby D5.” Image quality is excellent, though at base ISO slightly behind the older D7200 (don’t worry about that). Sports and wildlife shooters will be extremely happy with this camera. The rest of the pack will be just as happy with this camera if they can find the right lenses for their use. This is a solid product that will serve many shooters well for years.
  • D850 — It’s the FX D500. Literally. The D850 sensor is near identical in image quality to the D500 at the DX crop, so what you’re really getting with a D850 is all the goodness that was in the D500 with a larger area sensor, and thus, a lot more pixels. Moreover, Nikon has managed to make the D850 compelling to previous high-pixel body users: there’s enough change here that the D850 should be welcome by all D800 and D810 owners. One small downside: I’m starting to find the same occasional anomalies with battery, card, and third-party lens that requires pulling the battery and putting it back in to restore full functionality that we saw in the D500 after launch. It has only happened to me once, but judging from my emails, it’s happened to others, though a bit less often as the D500 “bugs” reared their head. Still, this is a solid product that will serve many shooters well for years.
  • D5 — Bet you thought I might overlook that warhorse. Not a chance. For PJ and sports shooters there just isn’t anything better. It’s a robust camera with arguably the best autofocus system made to date (again by anyone), and there’s little you can’t do with this camera. It’s not the camera you’d use for landscapes, obviously, but it’s still pretty darned versatile. I am never upset to have to shoot with this camera. Never.

Next, the solid cameras that aren’t quite hits or misses:

  • D7500 — Nikon de-contented this model in its rework enough that all of us who used D7xxx models are concerned. There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that the de-contenting is certainly there, and it might impact you. Single card slot, removal of rear IR capability, no battery grip, and a host of other small things are littered throughout the redesign. I would find it annoying to go backwards at anything if I were in upgrading in this model line, but Nikon has managed to do it to multiple features. The good news is that the camera that’s left is still really darned good. The key elements—focus, image quality, buffer, video, etc.—are all still as good as you’ll find at this price point. Overall, this is a solid camera, but it’s probably now overpriced for its feature set. Wait for sales.
  • D750The D750 has been Nikon’s best-selling full frame camera since it appeared, mainly because of price point versus feature set. As much as some say—including Nikon—that it’s a pro body, it really isn’t. The UI design and much of the parts selection is from Nikon’s consumer models. Most people give it credit for being “pro” because of the great 24mp FX sensor and some modest tweaks to the focus system. Since the D610 uses basically the same sensor, that narrows the "pro change" mostly down to the modest tweaks to the focus system ;~). Thing is, the D750 today often lives at a price point just below that of the D500. That forces people to pick between a great full frame sensor and its benefits versus a smaller sensor but with state-of-the-art frame rates, focus, and other technologies (e.g. 4K video). The D750 almost falls into the next category due to its three recalls. It’s just a good enough camera that it has somehow avoided falling into the “don’t want anything to do with it” mire that the D610 did (see below). Like the D7500, I think you buy a D750 only when the price is “right."

Next, the cameras that generate significant questions and that could be called misses:

  • D3400 — Nikon doesn’t seem to know what to do with its true consumer products. The D3400, on paper, doesn’t seem to be different than a D3300, and for the most part that’s true. A few small benefits snuck in (and there’s SnapBridge if you think that a benefit ;~), but none that I’d pay for. Thus, the still available D3300 at a lower price is what generates the questions here. Funny thing is, you can currently pick this camera up with the two AF-P lens set for US$600, and I think that price is going to stick and maybe even sweeten a bit. I’m not sure how you could beat the performance the D3400 and those lenses will give you for imagery at that price point. But still, you just don’t feel good about it. Nikon really goofed something up here. These things should be flying off the shelf at that price. 
  • J5 — The most recent Nikon 1 is now well past its expected iteration date, and Nikon hasn’t come out with any new Nikon 1 gear at all in over two years, so you’d have to call this an abandoned camera. Which is a shame, because it was a really decent small camera that just needed a better lens set to make it fully viable. You’d think that it could hold its own against the Sony RX100, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, and that has to do with things under Nikon’s control. I can’t really recommend you buy the J5 because even the original RX100’s have a faster fixed lens than the Nikon’s kit lens, and can be had for less money.
  • D5600 — Same problem as the D3400: the previous model is still on sale and the new model doesn’t seem to be enough different to justify the extra cost. Moreover, I’m not sure why you’d want a D5xxx camera. There’s not enough extra content to justify paying more for it than a D3xxx, and it isn’t until the D7xxx you get raw files that aren’t compressed in the highlights, the second control wheel, and a bunch of other very useful things. It seems to me that the D5xxx line exists to fill the price points between the other models, and not much else.
  • D610 — The D610 never shed the stigma of the D600 dust/oil mess. In theory, the D610 is just the same camera with a shutter that has been “fixed" by the supplier. But the dust/oil mess and how Nikon handled it initially made it so that people balked at paying so much for a basic full frame camera that might have issues. To bad. It’s a decent camera. At the right price (hint: lower than the current one) it’s not at all a terrible decision. In some ways, the D610 is the D3400 of FX: it’s a stripper in terms of features and some performance items, but in terms of image quality, it’s right there with its bigger brothers.
  • Df — An odd duck that appeals to a few, but a camera that ultimately doesn’t rise above its frankencamera design (film SLR controls grafted onto a D610 body). Nikon has stuck it with a very high price, and there have been no fixes for this camera (not even an optional focus screen, which even the camera’s designer opted for from a third party), and that has pretty much condemned it to very few sales, too.

The irony is that even Nikon’s “misses” are cameras that can and do take excellent images. Those cameras are misses because Nikon is incapable of marketing them properly. Or distinguishing them from predecessors and competitors. You’ll note that most of these cameras I call misses are in the lower, consumer part of the market, where marketing is very important. Nikon has failed to make their “consumer cameras” stick at least three times in their long history. They have some success when the market is growing quickly, then ultimately crash when sales become tougher. Nikon really has no story for true consumer products. 

And that’s really what defines Nikon’s hits and misses. The hits are cameras for which Nikon has managed to develop enough of a story (or benefit from users making one up for them) that there’s strong resonance in their established user base. 

Story: The D5 is the best camera Nikon has made. Best focus of any camera made. Image quality in extreme situations that photographers cherish. The D5 has a story we can all relate to: a nearly unbreakable product with state-of-the-art performance and features in every aspect. 

Story: The D500 is the best DX camera Nikon has made. Like the D300 before it, it’s the mini pro body: pretty much everything that is in the full frame pro version (e.g. D500 is to D5 as D300 was to D3), but at a lower and affordable price. You give up some bits and pieces of performance for that price reduction, but not much and not in places where you’re likely to need it (e.g. focus system). 

Story: The D850 is the best all-around DSLR Nikon has made. The D800 to D810 to D850 progression has been remarkable. Every one of those iterations progressed an already great product to an even higher level. It’s not even the sensor’s image quality that is driving this progression, it’s handling, features, ergonomics, and other key elements that just round out an already good package. 

So, if you’re looking for a great camera this Christmas that has Nikon plastered on the front of the prism, any significant discounts on the D500 and D850 should have you jumping. A really good price on a D7500 or D750 shouldn’t be overlooked. I’d add to that the D3400 at any clear bargain price. 

If you’re a trailing edge buyer, then look for close-out prices on these models: D3300, D7200, and D810.

(Next up: Canon’s hits and misses)

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