Nikon Road Map

Here's how to predict what Nikon will create in future DSLRs

I'm going to leave the last iteration of this article in place, below. Those words were written in 2017 before Nikon began their pivot to the Z mount (in 2018). While Nikon claims they will continue DSLR development for the foreseeable future, it seems clear that fewer DSLR models will be launched moving forward.

As I indicate in the Nikon Product Announcements index page, I expect the D3500 and D5600 to quickly move to some form of mirrorless. The Df and D610 are likely the only and last in their lines. I definitely expected a D6 and a D780, which we got. At this point, the only DSLR I’m reasonably sure will updated is the D850, where we’re likely to see a D880 iteration, patterned after what Nikon did with the D780 (introduce mirrorless capabilities to Live View).

What's difficult to predict now is the future of the top end DX DSLRs, the D500 and the D7500 (D7xxx line). Now that Nikon has both FX and DX mirrorless cameras with the Z mount, I expect this also means that the DX line will completely transition to mirrorless. However, there may be enough residual high-end DX DSLR demand that either the D500 or D7500 gets one more update.

With that out of the way, the following is what I wrote in early 2017:

A lot of folk still haven't quite caught onto Nikon's methodology, let alone how specific product decisions get made at the company. Nikon, if anything, has proven to be relatively predictable for several decades now, with only some of the fine engineering details and subtle product strategy shifts being surprises. Short answer: Nikon updates products on a regular basis from fixed platforms, likes to reuse parts across bodies, and has a fixed set of design teams that rotate to "the next design need."

With such predictability comes great risk, as Nikon is vulnerable to a lot of different risks: (a) disruptive designs or technology may not come from Nikon, so they'd be a follower, not a leader, if that happens. We can see this already in the mirrorless designs. Those cameras exposed a large weakness in Nikon's derive-new-cameras-from-old design philosophy. More on that in a bit. (b) competitors can basically predict what Nikon will do and use that to attack where they see vulnerabilities. The 5D and 5DII and the Canon f/4 IS lenses were such examples, as Canon clearly saw that Nikon was not in a hurry to push FX at the time, let alone push it down into the prosumer class; now that’s reversed and Canon is pushing the 7Ds when Nikon doesn’t have a response (c) customers are getting "upgrade fatigue" as the proliferation of minor changes and additions to the same basic product is starting to wear them out economically. Coupled with the Yen appreciation, which caused price increases, the recession in 2008, which caused demand decreases, and the quake and flood that disrupted Nikon's manufacturing in 2011, this put an increased tension on the 18-24 month schedule of "add some features, improve IQ slightly, but basically design the same camera over and over.” 

Here in 2017 we have a lower customer demand for cameras that’s driving decisions. This, too, is putting pressure on Nikon’s long-held development strategy. Thus, a caveat: what I write is mostly historically based. It’s quite possible for Nikon to make another big shift, as they did from film SLRs to digital. 

Nikon Cycles
As I've written before, new generations of pro Nikon bodies, where new technologies tend to get introduced, come at four year intervals, and those intervals are scheduled to precede Summer Olympics years. Consider:

  • 6/99: D1 intro, starts D1 generation (D1, D1h, D1x); Sydney Olympics 9/00
  • 7/03: D2h intro, starts D2 generation (D2h, D2hs, D2x, D2xs); Athens Olympics 8/04
  • 8/07: D3 intro, starts D3 generation (D3, D3x, and so on); Beijing Olympics 8/08
  • est. 8/11, actual 1/12: D4 intro, starts D4 generation (D4, D4x, and so on) (delayed due to quake); London Olympics 7/12
  • est. 8/15, actual 1/16: D5 intro, starts D5 generation (D5, D5x, and so on); Rio de Janeiro Olympics 8/16
  • est. 1/20: D6 intro, starts D6 generation; Tokyo Olympics 8/20

That's a pretty safe prediction, actually: the D5 got introduced exactly four years after the D4, so we’ve shifted the cycles a few months after the quake, but otherwise the four-year schedule is still intact. Indeed, any internal Nikon "road map" almost certainly has the D6 entry, above. We'll get to what that means in a bit.

For the prosumer DX bodies, Nikon has hiccuped quite a bit:

  • 2/02: D100
  • 12/05: D200
  • 8/07: D300
  • 7/09: D300s
  • original est. 8/11: D400 (update skipped because of Thailand flood?)
  • 1/16: D500

Even with those hiccups, it should be obvious that Nikon intended to iterate the prosumer DX body at about two year intervals (two years was their likely original goal, but they stopped coming close to that mark starting with the flood in Thailand in 2011). The D200 appears to have taken slightly longer to get to, but then we got back on some sort of reasonable two-year cycle (though with less changing between cycles), only to miss the D400 (again, probably due to the Thailand floods in that time frame, which caused supplier disruption, among other problems). 

With the D500 appearing early in 2016 with the D5, the best bet is that the pro DX series is probably back on a two-year interval, with a D500s likely next (e.g. small update).

The "high end consumer camera" has typically been on a two-year cycle as well (the D70s as an interim very minor upgrade):

  • 1/04: D70
  • 4/05: D70s
  • 9/06: D80
  • 8/08: D90
  • 9/10: D7000
  • 3/13: D7100
  • my original estimate 2/15, actually appeared 3/15: D7200 
  • 4/17: D7500

Thus, one should expect a D7600 (my guess at the D7500 replacement name) in early 2019 at the soonest. Pay attention to Nikon's past practices: we've had a strong hobbyist camera since the N70, even further back if you consider film SLRs (N6006), and while the cycle has extended a bit over time, it still tends to be very predictable.

The mid-level consumer body has also been on a one-and-a-half to two-year schedule, though the last iterations were on the quick end of that schedule for some reason:

  • 3/09: D5000
  • 4/11: D5100
  • 11/12: D5200
  • 11/13: D5300 
  • 1/15: D5500 
  • 11/16: D5600
  • 2018/19: likely a mirrorless camera at that date

The low-end consumer bodies are a whole different story. We had a new consumer DX body basically once a year at the low end for most of their history, then things slowed down in the last few cycles, with a long delay between the last two models with not much differentiation:

  • 4/05: D50
  • 12/06: D40
  • 6/07: D40x
  • 1/08: D60
  • 7/09: D3000
  • 8/10: D3100
  • 3/12: D3200
  • 2/14: D3300
  • 8/16: D3400
  • 2018/19: likely mirrorless replacement

The Nikon 1 bodies (which I cover on were on a one year or slightly longer iteration cycle, at least for the J series. But that stopped in 2015. There's been no continued iteration since. If I'm correct that Nikon will move the low-end DSLRs toward mirrorless in the next generation, it isn't likely we'll see another Nikon 1 body.

The smaller FX bodies (D610, D750) have no real predictive cycle yet. Nikon seems to have shifted some of their DX iteration to FX iteration lately (D600 got iterated very quickly, and the D800/D800E got iterated in two years to a D810, and a bit over two years to the D850, something that would be considered a “norm” for the three-digit bodies previously, so perhaps we can expect a D860 in 2019):

  • 2/12: D800/D800E
  • 1/14: D810
  • 8/17: D850
  • 8/19? D850 update?

Camera Platforms and Names
Here's another thing that people don't always realize: Nikon has four basic body “platforms" they iterate on (bold is current product):

  • Pro with Integrated Grip and full metal frame: D1, D1h, D1x, D2h, D2hs, D2x, D2xs, D3, D3s, D3x, D4, D4s, D5
  • Prosumer with hybrid metal/carbon fiber frame (early models were all metal frame): D100, D200, D300, D300s, D500, D700, D800/D800E, D810, D850
  • Large Consumer with hybrid metal/carbon fiber frame: D50, D70, D70s, D80, D90, D7000, D7100, D7200, D7500, D600, D610, D750
  • Small Consumer with mostly carbon fiber/plastic frame (some metal): D40, D40x, D60, D3000, D3100, D3200, D3300, D3400, D5000, D5100, D5200, D5300, D5500, D5600

The oddball is the Df, which seems to be a mix of Prosumer and Large Consumer pieces mixed with those new nostalgic dials.

Yes, that means that Nikon has made both DX and FX bodies on some of the same platforms (e.g. D7100 and D610 quite obviously shared a "platform" and virtually all parts that weren’t specifically DX or FX were common to both). It certainly is possible that Nikon could end up with four DX and four FX cameras, one on each platform, though as I write this a DX and FX pairing is only available simultaneously on the Prosumer (D500 and D850) and Large Consumer platforms (D7500 and D750). Put another way, I don't believe that Nikon thinks of the platforms as being DX or FX, but rather just a grouping of parts and manufacturing processes that are upgraded from time to time. 

Parts also tend to move downward to new platforms. The best example of that has been the autofocus system. The 51-sensor AF module started with the D3/D300, the top two platforms at the time. It then worked its way down to one of the large consumer bodies (D7100, D7200, D7500, D750), and lesser variations of it are found in the lower bodies, as well.

With the D5/D500 generation, the new 153-sensor AF module has started the same progression, now having been added to the D850. Predictions would say that some variation of it will find its way into almost all future DSLR models.

As if that weren't enough, Nikon's names are also (mostly) predictable. The pro generation changeovers tend to dictate when Nikon switches from initial odd to even numbers for the other models, though this is no longer perfectly predictive. When we were in the D2 generation, we got the D40, D60, D80, D200 (we also got an oddity in the D70). In the D3 generation we got the D90, D300, D700, D3000, D5000, and D7000. In the D4 generation we reverted back to even values for new initial numbers (e.g. D600 and D800, though the D750 was an exception). In the D5 generation we have the D500, D7500, and D850 all emphasizing the "5". 

Nikon did make some changes along the way to their numbering scheme, first separating the consumer bodies (D#000) from the prosumer bodies (D#00). Four-digit cameras are consumer cameras, three-digit cameras are (mostly) pro/prosumer, one-digit cameras are totally pro, while two-digit cameras are no longer made, probably because Nikon used up so many of the available numbers. This numbering has been confused by the appearance of the D610 and D750, which are actually more consumer-type bodies. It very well may be that the new formula is:

  • 1 digit (e.g. D5) is pro body with pro control set
  • 3 digits (e.g. D850) is an FX body or a pro DX body (e.g. D500)
  • 4 digits (e.g. D7500) is always a DX body with the consumer control set

Nikon seems their own worst enemy on naming, though. It was looking like 3-digit names were going to only be FX when no D400 showed up. Nikon had two choices with the D300s followup when it finally arrived: (a) link it to the successful D3/D300 pairing by launching it simultaneously with the D5 and calling it the D500; or (b) using the empty D9000 naming slot to suggest that it was at the top of the DX line. 

So that's the cameras, how about lenses?

Lenses are much more difficult to predict. This, too, has to do with Nikon engineering culture and organization. In the lens division, traditionally there's more leeway for the top designers to pursue things that interest them personally. That's why we get these mini series of lenses every now and then, such as the PC-E lenses. Tactically, they're not hugely important or big sellers. But someone wanted the design challenge and it did fix a parity issue with Canon's offerings, so it got on the schedule.

That said, you can see several trends in Nikon's decisions about lenses. Basically we have several clear lens sets:

  • DX 18-xx variable aperture zooms. These are best sellers, especially the ones with long focal length ranges. 
  • DX AF-P variable aperture zooms. These are high volume, low-cost lenses, and now include a wide angle and telephoto zoom.
  • FX fast primes. A rework of the f/1.4 lens (24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 105mm) and f/1.8 lens sets (20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm) is now basically complete. Curiously, only the most recent ones are E-type, none are very video friendly, which suggests yet another remake opportunity for Nikon.
  • FX fast zooms. Basically the mainstay of the pros (14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 200-400mm). The two middle lenses have been redesigned for high-resolution cameras and use E-type apertures. The other two will follow.
  • FX slowish zooms. Basically a compete-with-Canon f/4 initiative (currently 16-35mm, 24-120mm, 70-200mm).
  • FX variable aperture zooms. Currently a 18-35mm, 24-85mm, 28-300mm, 70-300mm, and the 80-400mm. As with DX, it's likely that these lenses all move to AF-P.
  • Exotic telephotos. We're on the umpteenth generation of the fast 200mm, 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm lenses, and now have an 800mm added to the lineup. Upgrades tend to be dictated by new technology for coatings, focus, or VR. Currently, the exotics are all adding flourite elements to make them lighter, a hydrophobic coating on the front element, electronic apertures, and “sport” mode VR.
  • Micro-Nikkors. A partial refresh of the old 55/60mm, 105mm, 200mm trio, giving short, medium, and long working distance options. This was extended to DX, so we currently have 40mm DX, 85mm DX, 60mm and 105mm FX lenses, with only the longest macro lens missing in both DX and FX.
  • PC-E lenses. A full set of tilt/shift lenses, basically to compete with Canon.

Outside of these lens sets, we tend to get only a small number of additional best-seller attempts (e.g. 35mm f/1.8 DX and 16-80mm DX). One thing that has bothered me for fourteen years now is that we still don't have anything approaching equivalency in the DX line, despite the fact that we've had pro and/or prosumer DX bodies for that entire period. No DX fast prime set (just one lens). No DX fast zoom set (just one lens).

So what's missing from the sets I defined? A few very fast FX primes (50mm f/1.2, 135mm f/2). The 200mm Micro-Nikkor replacement. We're also missing a DX prime set (14mm f/2.8 DX, 16mm f/2.8, 18mm f/2.8, 24mm f/2 DX or faster) and a fast zoom set (12-24mm f/2.8 DX, 50-150mm f/2.8 DX, perhaps a VR replacement of the 17-55mm). If you're counting, that's 10 lenses, which is at least two year's worth of typical Nikon lens releases. I'll bet that most of Nikon's coming lenses in the next two years will be from that list, the list of lens sets above, or updates of other lenses we've already got. 

There you have it: a likely Nikon Road Map for DSLRs and lenses for the next two years. I could be wrong on a few details here and there (especially lenses), but Nikon should be pretty close to what I outline here.

See also: Patents Predict

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