Nikon Summer 2009 Announcements

The good get gooder?

Original: 7/30/2009 updated 10am

There's a theme to this summer's announcements: revision. Instead of anything particularly new (yes, the D3000 name is new, but it's still a tweak of other cameras and fits the "revision" label), we're seeing already competent products refreshed.

This is easy enough to see with the two lenses, the 18-200mm DX and the 70-200mm f/2.8. Both were well-regarded lenses that had only minor issues. With the 18-200mm, the only things to complain about really were the dreaded zoom creep (lens wouldn't hold focal length when tilted up or down), that it wasn't as sharp as some of the other DX zooms at the longer focal lengths, and that it lost a lot of focal length when focused close at 200mm (essentially becoming a 135mm lens at close focus, typical of a superzoom lens). Meanwhile, the complaint about the 70-200mm was simple: on FX bodies you could see significant light fall off and sharpness loss in the corners (ironically, more than we saw with film bodies). Neither lens is particularly old, the 70-200mm having been introduced in 2002 and the 18-200mm in 2005. Still, we were nearing the longest we've ever gone without a refresh of the f/2.8 telephoto zoom standard bearer, so it isn't surprising to see a new variation (this will be variant number 5).

The 18-200mm doesn't change much. The zoom creep has been lowered, there's a new zoom lock switch to keep it from creeping during travel, and the lens coatings have been improved. But the optical formula, size, weight, and other specs are all the same as the original. The MAP (Minimum Advertised Price) has increased US$60), and it will be delivered in September, and will be available in D300s kits.

The new 70-200mm features a new optical formula and is designed to be sharp into the corners for FX, according to Nikon. The MTF charts Nikon released certainly show that it is better, but I'm not sure it's going to solve all problems: corner MTF is still down significantly, just not nearly as much as before. The MAP is US$2399, which also reflects a price increase over the lens it replaces. The lens is a bit shorter than its predecessor, but heavier, gets Nano coating and 7 ED elements. I'm not sure why Nikon announced it now, however. It won't be available until November, and I'm pretty sure we're going to have an FX body announcement in the timeframe before it becomes available (D700x).

Full details for both lenses are in my Nikkor database.

Both previous versions of these lenses were popular and well regarded. Thus, any improvement should be highly welcomed by the dedicated Nikon user. It's too early to say whether or not these are Must Updates, Maybe Updates, or Don't Bother Updating candidates. Personally, only the new 70-200mm is calling out to me, as I'm shooting more and more FX lately and the older 70-200mm is deficient in the corners when pressed into things like long distance landscape work. On DX, I'd rather have the extra width of the 16-85mm than the extra reach of the 18-200mm, so I'm not as excited by the 18-200 update. Still, any improvement on that lens will extend it's popularity as the "never leaves the camera lens" for many people.

The new body is the D3000, but it's basically a D60 with a bigger LCD, the D5000's autofocus system, the Picture Control system, and a new "Guide Mode" to help newcomers learn their camera faster. The 10mp sensor raises some eyebrows, as does the lack of video, but as a basic still shooter this camera should slot in naturally where the D60 left off. Indeed, the D3000 is priced exactly as the D60 it replaced. Kits (D3000 plus 18-55mm) should be shipping in August.

The last new product is the most significant: the D300s, the long expected update to the very popular D300. Even late last year I was expecting a D400 with a new sensor in this time frame, but by just doing a modest update to the D300, it appears Nikon is saying that they don't yet see a better sensor on the near horizon (otherwise they would have likely delayed a D300 replacement). The full list of "new" on the D300s compared to the D300 is:

  • 720P, 24 fps video (ala D90), but with contrast autofocus and ability to use smaller apertures (up to f/16).
  • External stereo mic input (16 bit/44.1kHz stereo sound with external mic). Also has manual sound level control.
  • In-camera movie editing (why, because the iPhone has it?).
  • Dedicated Live View button (makes UI for movies more like D90)
  • Dedicated center Direction pad button.
  • Dedicated Info button.
  • Second card slot (SD), plus ability to split stills and movies between slots. No card door interlock switch (door slides, ala D700).
  • In-camera support for Eye-Fi SD cards.
  • 7 fps capability without grip (still 8 fps with grip and right batteries).
  • "Quiet shutter" mode (apparently this delayed mirror return is no longer deemed "silent" ;~).
  • Built-in flash now covers 16mm (somebody finally put a 16-85mm on their D300 in Tokyo?).
  • Virtual horizon.
  • Some modest additions, such as Active D-Light bracketing.
  • Modest changes to the RETOUCH menu.

Strangely, the Portrait and Landscape Picture Controls that made it standard into the D5000 and D90 remain "optional downloads" for the D300s. Also, there's conflicting information about improvements to the AF system. It's clear that there are improvements to some aspects of the contrast AF system used in Live View and video, but it's less clear whether there is a substantive change to the phase detection AF system. Some people I tend to trust are saying there is a small improvement, but it's curious that Nikon marketing hasn't really been able to point out any change there.

While the D300s remains the same price as D300 to customers, here in the US the dealer margin was reduced by 3%. Don't expect great deals on the D300s unless Nikon sales decrease enough for Nikon to put incentives back into the system.

We're up to 20 buttons on the D300s (haven't counted the menu items yet, but I'm sure that's up, too). Frankly, this is becoming a bit troublesome to me. The new dedicated buttons all make sense and open up shortcuts that are welcome, but as a designer it strikes me that we already have too many buttons haphazardly spread across the camera. I sincerely hope that Nikon will work with some pro photographers and rethink their current proliferation strategy and come up with a more direct, innovative way to control future cameras.

I'm sure that a lot of people are looking at these announcements and either yawning (ho hum) or conjuring up Nostradamus ("Nikon is coming to the end..."). It is a little curious that Nikon seems to be treading water revising already competent products. For instance: the D5000 is a D90 with a swivel display and a couple features stripped off, the D3000 is a D60 brought up to date, the D300s is a D300 with the D90's movie feature added, the only new lenses are updates of old ones. Meanwhile Panasonic, Olympus, and Samsung are all showing a different take on the DSLR; Canon, Pentax, and even Sony are pressing on with megapixels; and so on. By contrast, Nikon's latest offerings look like very little movement on Nikon's part.

I wouldn't get too worried about that. As I've written before, Nikon is pretty predictable. They have had the same modus operandi in place for R&D since at least back to the F3, maybe longer. The big Nikon revelations come in four-year boundaries (with digital; with film it was eight years). We're in between that right now, so we have most of the engineering staff working on making sure that the last big changes have made it through the line and been tweaked out to their fullest. The current four-year generation was all about the introduction of FX, new AF, integrated metering and AF, the addition of video, UDMA and other fast access, plus far better pixel handling via a fully updated EXPEED. We haven't quite gotten the full runout of products in this generation yet. For those who can't guess it themselves, that would be:

  • D3. Begets D3s, D3x, D3xs. Spawns D700
  • D700. Begets D700x (and maybe D700s, D700xs)
  • D300. Begets D300s
  • D90. Begets the full consumer lineup: D5000, D3000, more)

That's a reasonably strong lineup. I've yet to see a camera equal the D3, D3x, or D700. The D300 and D90 arguably hold their own against higher megapixel competitors. The only real problem with Nikon's strategy is that it is weak on the marketing side. Marketing 10 and 12mp cameras without any new gee-whiz features against 15mp cameras or ones that are pioneering something makes the sale a little tougher. Still, the D300's (not the D300s, which is still an unknown) image quality still stands at or very near state-of-the-art for a cropped sensor camera (DX), and there isn't anything wrong with the body and the rest of its functions. So I can understand Nikon's conservative approach here.

That doesn't mean I agree with it. At my recent B&H seminar we got detoured by a question early on that led me into one of my oft-repeated criticisms (rants, whatever you want to call them): Nikon still isn't connecting with the serious photographer that's at the core of their success. In particular, the topic that diverted the seminar was "raw histograms" (and all the relatives to it, like UniWB, ETTR, etc.). Where are accurate histograms for raw? Seems simple enough. And it has a huge impact on image quality as many of us have found out. It's rare that I don't get another third of a stop of dynamic range by using UniWB in place of the missing raw histogram function. In some cases of unbalanced lighting, the value gets above a stop. Who doesn't want a stop better DR? The problem is that you have no way of easily obtaining that better dynamic range without going through hoops. (Danger Thom, you're getting off topic here, get back, get back...).

My point is going to be simple then: I don't mind the mid-term tweaks for the D300. But where are the ones that would just make the camera what we want it to be? I can think of a dozen things that could have been implemented in firmware that would make a great camera (D300) near perfect (D300bt ;~). Video isn't one of them.

So, yes, I am a bit disappointed in the D300s. It could have ironed out those last few wrinkles and become the near perfect still camera. Instead, it remains just a great still camera, now with video.

But one has to wonder if Nikon has peaked in the market. Modest revisions, lapses in quality control (D5000 being on the most recent), under production when demand was still there, now lack of demand due to recession and value of the yen, coupled with the saturation of DSLR users (that Guide Mode on the D3000 isn't going to bring any more potential users out of the closet, methinks), is going to make it very difficult for Nikon to grow. Very difficult.

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