Nikkors Need a New Nidus

 

Let's can the eclectic lens lineup and a do a clean restart.

Original: 12/1/2006
Updated: 1/5/2007 (some survey results)

Nikon appears to be moving the DSLR designs pretty much the way everyone expects. The Nikon DSLR lineup--assuming that the pro bodies get addressed next as we all anticipate--is doing well and gaining market share for the company. DSLR manufacturing seems to be capable of the surge in unit volume.

But lenses still remain an enigma. What exactly is going on with the Nikkor lens lineup, and why? It just doesn't seem to match up with the needs and expectations of all those DSLR users Nikon is piling up, lots of lenses have iffy availability, and we've had very few new lens introductions recently.

In this article I'll propose the optimal (for 2007) lens lineup. A few assumptions to get out of the way first:

  • DX isn't going away. The D40, the missing D65, the D80, and the D200 aren't going anywhere. Indeed, at the under US$2000 mark, the bodies will all remain DX for the foreseeable future.
  • 35mm Full Frame (35FF) is coming. A D3h might be DX (and it might not be), but certainly the next high-end Nikon DSLR (call it a D3x) will have the old 35mm frame size. Given the rumors of multiple prototypes with that frame size, I think it's safe to assume that pro equipment will probably transition to the larger frame size starting in 2007.
  • VR and AF-S are the new standard. With the DSLR bodies refreshed and no in-body VR, but VR becoming standard at the low end, VR is the next autofocus: required for all future lenses. Likewise, the D40 signals that AF-S is likely the new standard for focusing motor method.
  • 30 is about the limit. I could probably come up with hundreds of possible lenses, but for a first pass at totally refreshing the Nikkor lineup, we need to stick to the 90/10 rule. 90% of the user needs will be met by 30 lenses. From a dealer standpoint, you wouldn't want more than that, anyway, as you start to have inventory cost issues with more (as do the photographers!).
  • Photographer-centric is the right idea. You can design just about any lens these days. But the trick is to make sure that you understand what people want and will use. Some of that has to do with price, but much of it has to do with real photographic intent. Thus, throw out all your old conventional thinking and start fresh. Just because YOU like the 35mm f/1.4 doesn't mean it's photographically necessary.

So those are my design parameters. I'm assuming that Nikon just gave me carte blanche to do what I want, as long as I follow those basic assumptions. So what are the lenses Nikon should make, then? Well, I'll tackle this in chunks. (Note: lenses Nikon already makes will be in green, which should show you how far off the current lens lineup is.)

Let's start with the casual DX user. We've got some mini-assumptions here:

  • Casual DX users can't (and don't) frame wide. In 35mm film terms, 28mm is as wide as these folks go.
  • Casual DX users like convenience. One, two lenses in the kit tops. Lots of focal length range. Zooms, not primes.
  • Auto ISO is the new fast aperture. Decent ISO 1600 covers the sins of f/5.6 for this audience.
Lens Rationale
18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VR AF-S DX The new low-end kit lens, equivalent to the old 28-80mm in film terms. Low price, low capability.
18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 VR AF-S DX Goes a little further than the lowest lens, equivalent to the old 28-105mm in film terms. Modest price, slightly better capability
18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 VR AF-S DX Yep, we're going right up the ladder in zooms, this time we're in the traditional 28-200mm range. This should be the top selling lens in the casual lineup.
18-200mm f/4-5.6 VR AF-S DX Top of the casual line, the equivalent to the 28-300mm superzoom.
55-200mm f/4-5.6 VR AF-S DX The complementary telephoto for those that don't buy into the single superzoom from the beginning (i.e., buy a kit with a lesser lens and then need to augment it).
100-400mm f/4-6.3 VR AF-S DX Even casual users want reach sometimes. They're willing to give up aperture for size and weight, and that's what this lens does.

 

 

How's Nikon's current lineup compare? Well, they get the focal lengths mostly right (except at the long end, where they've got a 70-300mm coming that simply doesn't have enough reach, IMHO), but they've yet to fully embrace VR.

Okay, we're one-fifth of the way, let's take on the serious DX user next. Again, some mini-assumptions:

  • Serious DX users shot with film, so they know what they're missing. They'll go wider, longer, and faster than convenience users, and they want it with quality.
  • Serious DX users are more likely to own multiple lenses. Going wider, longer, and faster sometimes require carrying a few more lenses. That's okay with these folks.
  • Serious DX users are more likely to own specific purpose lenses. Quality first, and that includes DOF nuances that the convenience doesn't notice.
  • Serious DX users will accept weight and size to gain speed. Still, they also don't want to be a slave to two-pound lenses, so you have to design in less-than-superzoom focal ranges.
Lens Rationale
10-20mm f/4 AF-S DX The 12-24mm needs to go wider, given the other changes down the line. That Sigma is already there with a fine optic is more incentive to redesign.
16-50mm f/2.8 VR AF-S DX Needs to be faster, wider, and higher quality to attract the serious user from the casual lenses or what they already have.
50-150mm f/2.8 VR AF-S DX The DX equivalent to the old telephoto standard, but with a big more reach. Plus it's smaller and lighter than the film equivalent. Note that Nikon will probably get this lens wrong, and make it a 35-135mm f/2.8 or 50-135mm f/2.8.
100-300mm f/4 VR AF-S DX If I were to fully rationalize the list, it might be 150-400mm, but that would start to get a bit too big and pricey, I think. The goal is to design a serious DX kit that covers a very wide range of focal lengths in only a few lenses that can all be carried together, and have little overlap.
24mm f/2 AF-S DX The start of the fast, wide, small series of Nikkors, to replace the old film standards.
30mm f/1.4 AF-S DX The new "standard" lens for DX.
60mm f/1.4 VR AF-S DX The new "portrait" lens for DX.
200mm f/2 VR AF-S The serious DX 300mm f/2.8 equivalent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How does Nikon do here? Well, pretty poorly, actually. We've got a 17-55mm f/2.8 AF-S, but it doesn't go wide enough, nor does it have VR. The existing 12-24mm f/4 isn't wide enough. We do have the 200mm f/2, which hits the mark perfectly. But that's as close as Nikon gets. This category is mostly missing in action and needs some serious effort by Nikon.

14 of 30 lenses defined, let's move on to the toughest category: serious pro glass for upcoming 35FF DSLRs. Here we've got a lot of lenses to deal with (especially since at the top end of the range we overlap with the top of the serious DX user). Some mini-assumptions:

  • High-quality glass for a high-quality camera. The crowd that has been waiting for the image quality that a high-end, 35FF DSLR will deliver simply isn't going to put a consumer-quality lens on the camera.
  • Specialty's are our specialty. This crowd wants a handful of general purpose lenses, but we all specialize in something, so we want lenses for those purposes, too.
Lens Rationale
16-40mm f/2.8 VR AF-S Yes, we want VR in an old standard expanded to a bit more focal length range. We could live with 17-35mm again, but that would be an admission of design defeat in my book.
24-80mm f/2.8 VR AF-S Times have changed and the "standard" zoom needs to be a bit wider in range than the old standard.
70-200mm f/2.8 VR AF-S Nothing wrong with the old standard range here.
70-200mm f/4 VR AF-S But the old standard needs a smaller, lighter, less expensive cousin. (But see my "additions" at end for another possibility.)
200-400mm f/4 VR AF-S Four lenses get us from 16mm to 400mm. Call it "the pro convenience kit."
18mm f/2.8 AF-S The 18mm long needed a redesign, and most of the wide prime users now want more than 20mm gives them.
28mm f/1.4 AF-S We want fast wide lenses that are brought up to date.
35mm f/1.4 AF-S Build it and they will buy.
50mm f/1.2 AF-S Yes, it has to be faster. That's because we're pushing our DSLRs into ISO ranges that we didn't with film. Besides giving us better ISO in the camera, faster lenses start to open up even more territory for photography.
85mm f/1.4 VR AF-S Nothing wrong with the old classic other than the fact it doesn't have VR.
105mm f/2.8 VR AF-S Micro Not quite as useful as with the DX bodies as the working distance isn't great, but it'll still end up in a few 35FF bags as a long portrait lens if nothing else.
180mm f/2.8 VR AF-S Micro Just as the 105mm kills two birds with a glass stone, we do the same thing here. The question is 1:2 or 1:1? 1:1 please.
300mm f/2.8 VR AF-S Classic and done deal.
400mm f/2.8 VR AF-S Probably the most requested exotic at the moment.
500mm f/4 VR AF-S Second most requested exotic upgrade needed.
600mm f/4 VR AF-S And the last of the exotic lenses needing VR updates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I've hit my self-imposed limit of 30 lenses, but I'll admit that a few really specialty lenses haven't made it into the lineup, and that's a shame, as one of the joys of using Nikkors all these years is that there always seems to be something in the lineup that fills the bill. So I'll tackle a bonus section of slightly oddball lenses that need to be added to the basic 30:

Lens Rationale
18mm f/4 PC DX Alternatively, for the 35FF crowd: 24mm f/4 PC
70-180mm f/4 AF-S Micro Bring back my favorite lens, with a constant aperture this time. 1:2 is just fine, especially if we retain 62mm threads. Could replace the 70-200mm f/4 if you add VR.
10.5mm f/2.8 DX and 16mm f/2.8 Two very useful "different" lenses that should stick around, I think.
105mm f/2D AF-S VR DC Add those two additional components to this lens and it should stay.

 

 

 

 

 

Other lenses that might be interesting and useful: 400mm f/5.6 VR AF-S, 400-800mm f/5.6 VR AF-S, any number of wider-than-normal fast primes, quite a few other PC focal lengths, and any type of Tri-Elmer type of prime (i.e., multiple primes in one lens). In terms of added abilities, Real Focus Distance (tm) and a Hyperfocal button are candidates for the next acronyms to add to the lengthy list emblazoned on the lenses (as in the fanciful 10-2000mm f/2G AF-S VR IF-ED RFD HB CRC DC DX). (Perhaps if we get even more acronyms on the lens--more vowels please!--we can start building anagrams to name our lenses. Let's see, AF-S IF-ED VR nets us "Fab Fivers..." and AF-S ED VR gets "VD Fears..." [And since we're really deep ending here, the anagram for my name is "Man! Hog Hot!" Woo-hoo, I'm as hot as a pig!])

By my count, Nikon's got some serious work to do. Out of the 35 lenses I mention in the tables above:

  • 8 lenses exist as listed
  • 14 existing lenses need serious upgrading (AF-S, VR, or both, perhaps other minor changes)
  • 6 existing lenses need a full redesign (serious focal length and/or aperture range change from existing lens)
  • 7 lenses don't even exist and need to be designed from scratch

Are you listening Nikon? It's time to get those glass foundries running overtime.

Update: when this article first appeared, I prepared a short survey about your current and future lens choices and asked you to take the time to fill it out. In less than a month I had about 5000 responses to the original survey (CLICK HERE if you'd like to still participate--I'll leave the survey open for the foreseeable future). Thanks to everyone who took the time--if nothing else, it helped me understand the wants and desires of the serious Nikon shooter better.

I'm not going to report the full results here, though. Indeed, I'm only going to tease a few of the results, at least for the time being. That's because I don't want to get into the business of providing Nikon extensive marketing research for free with nothing in return; what I want is for Nikon engineering to establish contact with me and open a dialog in order to get the complete results of this or any other survey I do on this site (yes, there will be more--the more I understand my site visitors, the better I can tailor and prioritize the information on the site, as you'll see in a bit). Moreover, I don't want to be doing free marketing research for Nikon competitors, either. Indeed, that's one of the carrots I can offer Nikon Japan: if they want the information, I'll be happy to present it to them and not present it to others. The other carrot I can offer is that I can resurvey or tailor a new survey to specific questions that might come up (and yes, I understand how to mask possible future product information in ways so that you can't easily spot the actual product being tested for). (Note to NikonUSA: you can certainly offer to broker a connection between me and Nikon Japan, but I'll not present the information except to those that can act on it.)

If I were to provide the full results here, I'd actually be doing the opposite of my original stated intent, which is to do my best to lobby Nikon for a more photographer-centric approach to their lens lineup. Real lobbying requires direct contact, not lobbing data grenades into the air randomly. There's plenty of interesting information in your answers to my first survey, but it wasn't worth the cost and time of collecting and analyzing it if it just gets sucked into the Nikon engineering vacuum and used or not used according to the engineering mood of the day. We've suffered too long with Nikon not producing exactly what we want. Many of us feel that they've been ignoring some customer preferences for a long time. There may be reasons why they're doing that, but they're not telling us what they are, either, so something needs to change.

By not freely providing the full dump of information I've obtained, one of two things will happen: (1) Nikon will continue to ignore us and thus not make any attempt to get the information from me; or (2) the appropriate groups within Nikon will get in contact with me and ask for it and perhaps we can start a dialog between customers and Nikon engineering through an intermediary (me). If that means I have to add a trip to Japan to my already busy schedule, so be it. Yes, all this means that I'm sometimes sneaky and coldly calculating. But I think it's for the right reasons. And note that I am offering some tasty carrots...

Okay, so of those 5000 or so responses (I'm going to use rounded numbers here when I reveal any), how many actually own a Nikon DSLR? 92%. And the three most likely Nikons they owned were the D2x, D70/D70s, and D200. I also asked about what they'd purchase in 2007. Nikon, if you have any hesitation about releasing the D3h, you can stop worrying: over 10% said they'd buy the D3h, and over 25% said they'd buy the D3x. Bring 'em on.

But the survey was primarily about lenses. Let me give you some teases about what I saw in the results:

  • Way more of you think you'll buy the 10.5mm DX Fisheye than I ever would have guessed. And that comes on top of a healthy number already owning it. That bumped my review priorities around quite a bit. I'd been thinking that few of you were interested, so my review could wait for a rainy day. Oops. My apologies.
  • The 12-24mm and 17-55mm are used by a large percentage and coveted by a majority of the rest.
  • As you might expect, high percentages of the kit lens purchasers (18-55, 18-70, etc.) are simply turning them over. The percentage of used-to-own-but-sold is very high for these (and a few other lenses that were surprising). But overall, you seem to be a restless bunch--the used-to-own-but-sold numbers are higher than I would have thought for virtually everything.
  • You want more DX true wide angle (hint: 28mm equivalent isn't the wide angle we're talking about), pretty much of any kind I suggested. Not by a little bit, but by a LOT.
  • Of the non-DX, the 50mm f/1.8 and the 70-200mm lenses are the ones you own the most of. A large percentage of those that don't own the 70-200mm seemed poised to purchase it or a variant in the future. Two other lenses surprised me in the percentage who are considering buying them (whether they'd surprise Nikon or not is another story) and are forcing me to rejigger my review priorities.
  • It seems clear to me from your answers that the future 35FF lineup needs to be different than the current one. Other than the 70-200mm, that is.
  • A third of you had other DX lenses that you thought needed to be produced. A fourth of you had other 35FF lenses you thought needed to be produced. Some of you are even more optimistic than me in what you can design optically ;~). But a surprisingly high number of the write-in candidates for lenses are realistic and justifiable. It'll take me awhile to fully analyze those answers for trends.

So there's the tease. The carrots have been picked and are ready for eating. The ball is now officially out of my court (or any other cliche you'd like to substitute).


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