The Nikon D780 is Announced

In conjunction with CES (Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas), Nikon today finally introduced the replacement to the D750. I write "finally," as the D750 is now well over four years old, though overall that has made it Nikon's best selling full frame camera. In essence, the new camera is a D750 type body with the Z6 sensor and EXPEED6 processor. Plus a few of Nikon's continued and frustrating product simplifications.

bythom nikon d780

Let's start with the simplifications, because they show the dilemma that Nikon has gotten themselves into. In order to reduce costs, Nikon is de-contenting cameras on the physical side. We saw this with the D7500, which lost AI indexing, a card slot, and a vertical grip, among other things. Now we see it again with the D780, which loses a flash and AF Assist lamp, and again comes with no vertical grip option. We also don't get a thumb stick to control autofocus.

So let me state it simply: it's getting more difficult to find new customers, and it's getting more difficult to get existing customers to upgrade. There's nothing in the D780 design that's really going to attract someone new to the Nikon DSLR lineup. Thus, to succeed, the new camera must compel existing D750 users to update. By dropping features that the customer already has and may appreciate, you simply make it less likely that they'll upgrade. 

I understand Nikon's need to reduce costs, but you know what? Simply not having a booth at CES would have saved them far more than taking the flash and grip contacts out of the D780. Nikon's priorities and spending on the marketing side is completely out of whack with the reality of a rapidly declining market. I'd be spending my money directly targeting D750 users and making the new product as compelling as possible, not using outdated and inefficient tactics such as large trade shows to launch products not really targeted at the trade show's audience.

Okay, with that out of the way, let's look at what the D780 actually is.

As noted, The D780 gets the Z6 sensor. While that doesn't mean much in terms of image quality—despite the switch to BSI—it does have quite a few downstream implications for Live View and video. In essence, the D780 works exactly like a Z6 when shooting from the Rear LCD (as opposed to the viewfinder) and shooting video. (Okay, some of you want to know more about that image quality thing: at base ISO you're not going to see differences other than what newer in-camera processing can produce. At ISO 800 and above you might see a small positive impact favoring the new camera due to its use of Dual Gain; that also shows up as a higher settable numbered ISO, too.)

Video specs add in the 4K options from the Z6, as well as 120 fps 1080P. More interesting to some will be that the 10-bit N-log and HLG output carries over from the Z6, as well, making this the best video-enabled Nikon DSLR to date. The mechanical shutter now goes from 900 seconds (!) to 1/8000 second, though still with a 1/200 flash sync. We get a maximum frame rate of 12 fps (albeit in Live View; regular DSLR type shooting maxes out at 7 fps).

The viewfinder pretty much stays the same, while the Rear LCD adds dots (now 2.36m) and touch. The focus system stays the same for optical shooting, but gets the Z6 treatment for Live View and video, including Eye Detect. Battery (sort of) remains the same, with the EN-EL15b being supplied (it'll also use older EN-EL15 versions). Power consumption has been trimmed so that the CIPA rating is 2260 shots. The b version of the battery can be charged in camera via USB, though you can't power the camera via USB. The dual SD slots are now UHS-II, which is definitely appreciated. The SnapBridge "goodies" (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) are also now built in.

The D780 also gets all the EXPEED 6 generation goodies, including the Auto and Creative Picture Controls, Mid-range Sharpening, Diffraction Compensation, and more. That more includes focus stacking and the D850's level of Multiple Exposure. One curiosity is that the D780 now supports the ugly duckling WT-7A Wireless Transmitter.

Overall, the body went on a fair bit of hard-to-detect redesign for some reason, while picking up nothing from the Z back redesign. Nikon is claiming "rugged and weather-sealed" for the body. Despite no flash, the body is a bit taller and a bit wider. The body design is also more angular than before, and has some odd changes on the back, where we still have the overloaded column of buttons down the left side of the LCD, ala the consumer DSLRs. The AE-L/AF-L button has dropped to about where you'd want that missing thumb stick, and the whole right side of the camera seems weirdly angled; apparently Nikon wants you to tilt your hand slightly inward. I suspect that the D750 update was already in progress before the Z designs got locked down, then postponed a bit while Nikon put all their effort into the Z's. Why we don't get the Z-style i button and rear buttons, I don't know, though. Likewise the use of a flash button (though there's no internal flash) is another strangeness. Apparently Nikon thinks that a lot of D7## owners use flash, but Nikon doesn't want to give them one in the camera. Finally, the huge separation between the Fn and Pv buttons with the old-style small nubs-for-buttons also seems like a miss. Someone in charge of Product Management is not riding the whips nearly hard enough on the designers.

Price is US$2300 for the body alone, or US$2800 with the aging 24-120mm f/4G lens.

The real question is the one I pointed to before I got into the specs, though: is this enough camera to get people to justify upgrading? 

It's feeling like a "Maybe" to me, which is not exactly where Nikon needs to be when replacing a four-year-old+ camera that's probably the last of its line. The eye-at-the-viewfinder shooter isn't going to find a lot that justifies another US$2300 tithe to Nikon where the touchscreen actually feels like the biggest update. The shooter that values odd-angle arm length stills and who also shoots video might think the changes are more than enough, though.

To me it seems that Nikon is a little paralyzed between the mirrorless/DSLR options themselves. Nikon didn't make the be-all, do-all mirrorless cameras that would absolutely get a DSLR shooter to make a switch. Nor are they making the you-can't-believe-how-good-a-DSLR-can-be option that would keep the mirror-slapping crowd perfectly willing to continue forking out update money. I'm on record as saying they should have done both (e.g. best possible mirrorless, best possible DSLR). I'll now go on record as saying the D780 is just evidence of more, clear, bean-counter mismanagement.  

One problem Nikon had is that they never really updated the D700. The D750 wasn't really a D700 update. Now we have a stand-alone, four-year-old slightly consumerish DSLR that will likely only get the one update (e.g. the D780). And that update is more on the modest side than it is on the aggressive side. Frankly, I don't get that thinking. I'm not even sure that it is thinking ;~). 

The whole D7## thing has been a bit perplexing from the get go. The original and very popular D700 was clearly a professional camera, and made for an awesome three-pack statement (D3, D300, D700) from Nikon that entirely reversed their momentum against Canon. Indeed, Nikon started taking prosumer/pro market share from Canon, and it was led by those three seminal cameras. 

The D750 looked and felt more like a consumer camera (as does the D780), yet its staunchest users are still those that opted for the D700 previously. The D750 is one of the most popular wedding and event photographer cameras, for instance, yet I'd argue that it's build and design are a bit below what that shooter really would want. But it appears with the D780 that Nikon decided to ignore that demand. The lack of a vertical grip and built-in flash is going to annoy the very folk that settled for the D750 and were key to its success, I'll bet.

Let's hope that the upcoming D850 update is better thought through. I've already noted that the 61mp sensor would be an easy decision there, but given the D780 let's hope that Nikon doesn't let the bean counters win and force them to use the Z7's sensor instead; that kind of thinking will produce a D880 that's pretty much like the D780: modest upgrade that misses the mark for most still photographers. Who, after all, are the primary ones owning a D750 and D850 today. 

Thus, the good news is that Nikon isn't abandoning their DSLR users. The bad news is that they're also not giving those customers as much love as they probably should. 

Along with the D780, Nikon also officially introduced the 120-300mm f/2.8E FL ED SR VR lens. The big claim to fame with this lens is that it's going to sell a lot of Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM lenses ;~). That's because the Sigma costs US$3600 (but often has discounts), while the Nikkor drops in at a hefty US$9499. Nikon apparently intends this new lens to replace the older 300mm f/2.8G VRII, as they specifically indicate that this new zoom is optically as excellent as the prime. 

Bonus: Why does Nikon keep giving up on fully integrated camera grips? The D7500, Z50, and now D780 all don't get one, and the Z6 and Z7 really only got a Battery Dongle. 

I'm going to take a stab in the dark at this one: the bean counters say the grips aren't profitable. Why? Because the grips end up being given away when Nikon puts the cameras on sale, and by taking the profit from the grip, the camera still looks profitable ;~). Meanwhile, the third-party knockoffs all sell for one quarter to one third the price. I'm pretty sure there's some mind-blowing spreadsheet that is driving this decision, and it's all about "controlling costs." And at a lower level of annoyance, support costs go up because a lot of those third-party knockoffs don't work well, and they clog Nikon's support lines when they don't.

So why did the Z6 and Z7 get a Battery Dongle? Because those cameras can't power video for very long with only one in-camera battery, and Nikon wanted to make a stronger statement about video. Even if they have to give those Dongles away to sell cameras in the future, the costs in both the camera and the Dongle are far lower, so "problem solved." 

Personally, I'm not a fan of the vertical grips. I never use them. I've sold every one I get—I need them in writing my books, unfortunately—and I see plenty of folk in the field fighting with theirs'. I told you my proposed solution well over a decade ago: make the same camera in two forms, a vertically-gripped big body that's fully weatherproofed and near indestructible (e.g. D5 like), and a non-gripped small body that isn't as robust (and maybe has a few non-essential things taken off, like backlit buttons). Let the customer choose what they need, but make the design/development/production as conformed as possible, which saves costs. Nikon did exactly that with the D700/D3 combo. Then the success of that apparently told someone in Tokyo that they should stop doing that ;~).

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