I

The State of DX in 2012


The broad summary of where we are, and where we aren't

Original: 10/1/2012

Let's review where we're at right now with DX cameras and lenses. To understand what's missing and how DX might serve you, you need to know what the state-of-the-art is, according to Nikon.

Let's start with bodies:

  • D3200--a state-of-the-art entry camera. It's got a 24mp Nikon sensor that's about as good as it gets in APS/DX. This body still uses the consumer entry design (started with the D40), so it doesn't have a body-based autofocus motor, it uses a pentamirror, and has a number of other cost reduction initiatives. That said, the camera itself performs well, and as I've already noted, we can regard it as state-of-the-art for its price and category. Recommended
  • D5100--an out-of-date camera due for refresh any day now. It uses the slightly older 16mp Sony sensor, but is basically the same body design as the D3200, only with more features and a pivoting LCD. Don't jump on this model unless it's absolutely right for you and the price is right. If you're in the mood for this level of camera, the right thing to do is wait for the inevitable D5200, which should be along any time now. Recommended only at a strong discount
  • D7000--it could use a sensor update to be absolutely current, but in terms of body and features it's actually still quite relevant. An excellent all-around performer that bridges the true consumer DSLR and the true pro DSLR very nicely. If you don't need 24mp (and realistically, not many do), the only thing really problematic with the D7000 is the fairly restrictive buffer size, which limits burst shooting. The D7000 is due for refresh probably in 2013; I suspect the main driver of that refresh would be a newer sensor with more pixels. Recommended
  • D300s--Welcome to 2007! Even with the "s" update, the D300s is realistically a top-of-the-line 2007 camera. While feature-wise there's nothing to complain about, sensors have gotten a lot better since the D300s's sensor was locked down. EXPEED has gotten faster, too. Simply put, Nikon's top-of-the-line DX body is badly out of date. I expect it to get a refresh in early 2013, but it needed it a year ago. I don't currently recommend people buy a new D300s (unless you're absolutely replacing a lost or damaged camera and need the same exact thing). Not Recommended

Body choices are thus slightly limited by the out-of-date D300s. Most of the DX body line has been iterating with regularity, almost always to state-of-the-art. The long wait for a D300 replacement seems intentional by Nikon, and I believe that's just wrong. After getting their core constituency excited about the D300 in 2007, Nikon has basically neglected them and tried to push them to other products ever since. It would be as if Apple stopped updating the MacBook Pro. Why would you punish some of your most loyal customers? (Don't send me emails about changes to the MacBook Pro Apple has made; Nikon hasn't done its customers the service of even showing them what they think the future of that product looks like, even if we don't agree with it.)

In terms of lenses, this is where DX actually gets quite depressing. The bodies, after all, are just going through refresh cycles, and while that's been a little slow in some cases (possibly due to the quake and flood), it continues to happen. If all four Nikon DX DSLRs were "current", they would represent a strong bottom-to-top lineup. Unaligned product cycles mean they never all get "current" together, but they come close sometimes. I'll bet we'll be close again some time early in 2013.

While Nikon currently lists 17 DX lenses available, this is a bit of deception. Three of those are old lenses that are probably still around because Nikon never sold off the inventory of the originals (18-55mm non-VR, 55-200mm non-VR, 18-70mm) and/or is using them to lower prices in third-world countries. The only two high-end lenses (12-24mm and 17-55mm) have been around for ages, and the latter really needs a refresh with VR. Two of the lenses are Micro-Nikkors (40mm and 85mm), but only the 85mm makes any real sense to me. From a truly practical standpoint, there really are only 12 DX lenses available with the words Nikkor on them:

  • 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5. A very good lens with few flaws, and probably the best choice for real wide angle on DX. Heck, it's really one of two choices for real wide angle from Nikon. Recommended
  • 12-24mm f/4. An older lens, also with few flaws. Nice pro build, solid at most things, and even usable at some focal lengths on FX, but the price turns a lot of people off. Recommended
  • 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6 VR. Probably the best of the mid-range choices, as it is a very good compromise of focal length range, aperture, VR, and optical quality. Nice match for D7000 and D300s (and possibly future D400) users. Recommended
  • 17-55mm f/2.8. This lens is often maligned, but frankly it is quite good optically. I have no tangible issues with my copy, even on the newer DX bodies. It's big, heavy, doesn't have VR, and it costs more than any body you're likely to put it on, though. Makes it hard to recommend.
  • 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VR II. Considering that this lens basically sells for US$100 in kits, it's exceptional. In reality, it's a decent, competent lens that's probably enough for most entry DX users. On the 12mp and 16mp cameras it didn't really show serious flaws. On the 24mp sensor cameras it starts to show its weaknesses, especially at the edges.
  • 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5. Showing its age. Not a bad lens, but has serious vignetting issues wide open and is missing VR.
  • 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 VR. The D7000 kit lens, and it's a very appropriate lens for that camera, with about the right level of optical quality for the 16mp sensor. Going to show its weaknesses more on the 24mp sensors, and it is a bigger, heavier option, so if you bought into DX for small size/weight, you're starting to tip the wrong way by picking this lens. Recommended
  • 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR II. Showing its age. The 16mp sensors show its weaknesses, and the 24mp sensor even more so. You're opting for convenience here, but you're paying for it in price and size/weight. Not Recommended
  • 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR. My review is coming up. If you're into the convenience thing (one lens does all), this is probably your choice now. But boy do you pay a big size and weight penalty. Review coming
  • 35mm f/1.8. The one true gem in the DX lineup. Cheap, small, and incredibly good for its price. If you're a DX user and don't have this lens, I'm not sure you're a DX user ;~). Why we don't have 16mm f/2, 20mm f/1.8, and 60mm f/1.8 siblings of this lens, I have no idea. Such a lineup of small, competent, reasonably fast primes would go a long way to making serious DX uses happy. Highly Recommended
  • 40mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor. Technically, nothing really wrong with this lens. It's not large, it's relatively inexpensive as Nikkors go, and it's optically very, very good. Only one problem: it doesn't solve any user problem (just as the 60mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor doesn't really solve a user problem in FX). The real issue here is "working distance." If you're going to use this lens as a true macro lens, you're just too close to the subject. If you're going to use it as a "regular" lens, it's not a better choice than the 35mm f/1.8. Not Recommended
  • 55-200mm f/4-5.6 VR II. Like the 18-55mm kit lens: a decent, competent lens that's probably enough for most entry DX users. Given the reasonable price, even more so. Recommended
  • 55-300mm f/4-5.6 VR. Okay, here's the rub: is the extra 100mm worth US$200? I'm not so sure. Again, this is a a decent, competent lens. It basically is the same level of quality as the 55-200mm, but goes to 300mm with only a bit of drop off at the telephoto end in terms of performance. I'd argue that if you need 300mm, you should jump to the 70-300mm VR. It's more money, but it also is more lens, and more appropriate for the higher density sensors we're getting these days in DX.
  • 85mm f/3.5 Micro-Nikkor VR. I guess this is supposed to be the 105mm macro for DX (as the 40mm is the 60mm macro for DX). It's a shame that we lost half a stop in the process (since we've already lost a stop of equivalence via the sensor itself). Realistically, very sharp and very good, and about the right size/weight for the DX cameras. I'll have my full opinions in an upcoming review. Review coming

So why is the lens line depressing? Because you basically have one choice: lower level zooms, or higher level zooms. If you want to cover true wide angle through true telephoto, the low-end choices are (a) 18-300mm; or (b) 10-24mm, 18-xxmm, and 55-200/300mm. (a) is big and heavy, (b) is three relatively large lenses with variable apertures and performance that may or may not match the sensor capability. The high end choice is: 12-24mm f/4, 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6 or 17-55mm f/2.8, and probably the 70-300mm VR (not a DX lens, but works very nicely on DX cameras). Bigger, heavier, more expensive.

There is no "set of primes" choice (yet we have that for m4/3, NEX, NX, Pentax K, and FX). I'll have more to say about this as we get further into the month, complete with a pseudo-suggestion.

Put a different way: Nikon pretty much forces your hand on lenses. With FX, we have 57 choices. With DX we have 17 choices, and those choices are further lmited when you actually start trying to put together a reasonable kit. No Lego blocks here, folks: Nikon wants to Chinese menu you and only offer you option A, B, or C, at that.

There are other slightly hidden wrinkles in the DX game. For example, the D3200 and D5100 don't support older autofocus lenses: they require an AF-S lens with a dedicated lens motor. The D7000 and D300s not only support older autofocus lenses, but they also support manual focus lenses, as well (via setting Non-CPU Lens Data). Thus, low-end DX users have a restrictive set of appropriate lens choices, while high-end DX users can try to dip into legacy lenses to find their right lens kit. This dichotomy isn't a bad thing. Low end DX users tend to not be lens collectors, nor are they always looking for absolutely best optical quality. Thus, I'm going to make one of my straw-man statements:

D3200 and D5100 users should pick either (a) the 18-55mm and 55-200mm kit zooms; (b) the 16-85mm or 18-105mm zoom; or (c) the 18-300mm. Those who pick (b) and (c) might want to supplement their kit with the 35mm f/1.8. If you're into macro, maybe add the 85mm f/3.5. That's pretty much it. This isn't a group that tends to go very wide (indeed, some low-end DX users actually use the 28-300mm FX lens as their all-in-one solution). It isn't a group that wants to carry very much or change lenses often.

It's the more serious DX users (D7000 and D300s) that face difficult issues. For example: how to go wide? how to go fast? how to go small/light? And it's here that Nikon's solutions fail the user. Let's take those three questions and answer them, Nikon style:

  • How to go wide? Buy one of two zooms.
  • How to go fast? Buy the 35mm f/1.8, maybe the FX 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8, the FX 85mm f/1.8.
  • How to go small/light? Buy the 35mm f/1.8, maybe the FX 50mm f/1.8.

See any problems with these answers? Yeah, no fast/small/light wide solution, and very few options overall.

We're in the heart of the serious enthusiast market with the D7000 and D300s. They're not being served with even a basic set of options. Elsewhere on this site I've outlined what a full basic system from a camera maker needs to look like, but let me repeat it here:

  • Convenience (kit) zooms covering midrange and perhaps more. For DX that would be 16-50mm, maybe 16-80mm, maybe a 18-105mm, 18-135mm, or 18-200mm option.
  • Performance zooms covering the core wide angle to telephoto range (f/2.8 typically). For DX that would be 16-50mm, 50-135mm.
  • Small performance primes covering the wide angle to moderate telephoto range in the traditional focal length steps. For DX that would be 16mm, 18mm, 24mm, 35mm, 55mm.

Nikon does adequately in the first category, is mostly missing in the second and third. Funny thing is, only three years after introduction, m4/3 has all of these lenses and more. Here it is coming up to 14 years after DX introduction and we're still missing key lenses.

Fortunately, we have a little help. The third party lens makers have stepped in to fill a few gaps, though for the most part they repeat many of the same options that Nikon offers, apparently trying to just undercut Nikon on price. Let's look at what these makers offer (bolded lenses fill unique gaps Nikon doesn't; I'm going to be easy on this grading ;~):

  • Sigma--4.5mm f/2.8,8-16mm f/4.5-5.6, 10mm f/2.8 fisheye, 10-20mm f/3.5, 10-20mm f/4-5.6, 17-50mm f/2.8 OS, 17-70mm f/2.8-4 OS, 18-50mm f/2.8-4.5 OS, 18-125mm f/3.8-5.6 OS, 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OS, 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 OS, 30mm f/1.4, 50-150mm f/2.8 OS, 50-200mm f/4-5.6 OS. In addition, two FX lenses, the 20mm f/1.8 and 24mm f/1.8 might be seen as possible (big) prime replacements for DX.
  • Tamron--10-24mm f/3.5-4.5, 17-50mm f/2.8 VC, 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3, 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 VC, 60mm f/2 Macro.
  • Tokina--10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 fisheye, 11-16mm f/2.8, 12-24mm f/4, 16.5-135mm f/3.5-5.6, 35mm f/2.8 Macro.

Not a very broad set of offerings, and it doesn't really fill in the Nikon DX gaps as well as we'd like. The primary unique choices are the Sigma and Tamron f/2.8 mid-range zooms with optical stabilization, the Sigma f/2.8 VR telephoto zoom, and the Tamron 60mm f/2 macro, which also makes for a reasonable moderate telephoto prime.

Thus, in the DX world we still don't have: 16mm, 18mm, 24mm fast primes. We don't actually have a 24-70mm f/2.8 equivalent (yet m4/3 does). We have only one choice for fast telephoto zoom (Sigma 50-150mm OS, which has gotten bigger than its non-OS version and lost a bit of its desirabillity for keeping a DX set compact and lighter). In short, the third-party makers offer a lot of more-of-the-same options and few true gap fillers. Many of the lenses I've bolded in the above list aren't exactly high priority on DX enthusiasts' lists.

So perhaps we need to step back for a moment. Why do you buy DX in the first place, then? Ironically, DX (and APS offerings from Canon and Sony) are the meat of the interchangeable lens market, far out-selling any other choice of interchangeable lens camera system. Mirrorless systems may be smaller, but the good ones cost as much as DX and deliver less performance in several key areas (primarily low light, continuous autofocus, and viewfinder lag). FX systems cost more, are bigger and heavier, but because of legacy lenses, they are complete systems.

I think the camera makers see DX (APS) as "value propositions." Lots of performance, not too much size/weight, good price." At the D3200/D5100 level, I'd say that's probably true: best compromise overall = best value.

But D7000 and D300s users are a slightly different breed. Yes, they're still looking for value, but they're also looking for performance and completeness. The camera makers have a big blind spot for wildlife photography, for example. DX makes a lot of sense as a value/performance wildlife system, but only if there's a D400 body to replace the aging D300s.

The D7000 and D300s are in the US$1000-1500 range as bodies. With the recent apperance of the FX sensor US$2100 D600, the D300s now looks like a very bad choice to anyone coming into the market. It's way out of date in sensor, and you just won't have a lot of lens choices. Yet there are advantages: frame rate, buffer, body build, smaller size to name a few. It's just that those advantages no longer outweigh the disadvantages, so users are buying down (D7000) or buying up (D600). Those that buy down are still limited by lens choice. Those that buy up pay more and get a larger, heavier camera and potentially larger, heavier, more expensive lenses, too.

A lot of people have written me thinking the D400 will never appear. But if you consider the last paragraph and what DX is all about, it has to appear, or else Nikon will have effectively narrowed DX to a much smaller audience. Nikon can't afford to narrow their markets at this point, nor can they trust that they can force people to buy higher. They have potential large competitive gaps with strong competitors if they take the D300s/D400 out of the lineup. No, there will be a D400. The only question is when and what.

I've alluded to comments I receive from readers about leaving DX. I've received hundreds of these lately, but let me just quote from a very small sampling to give you a taste of the prevailing winds:

  • Just returned from two weeks of backpacking in Iceland, where my E-M5 and lenses did everything that needed doing while fitting in the lid of my pack with room to spare. As someone who used a D700 professionally for nearly two years, Nikon would have had a very easy time keeping me as a customer when my needs changed and I was looking to downsize. But their CX system is a joke, DX lacks primes, and there's no reason to think they'll offer anything credible in the near future. Olympus's E-M5 came along at just the right time and is a game changer as far as I'm concerned. (ay)
  • I picked up a gx1 before a short trip to Florida. My d700 never left my bag during the trip. I had so much fun shooting with the gx1 and was so pleased with the results that I did some major re-evaluation when I returned home. (ks)
  • I started to long for a smaller kit than my current D300 with it's Sigma 17-50 f2.8 and Nikkor 105mm macro (and the next lens in the pipeline would of been Tokina 11-16 f2.8). A month ago, I ended up weighting the pros and cons between Olympus O-MD and Sony Nex 7. I chose the Olympus for the insane choice in m4/3 when it come to lenses. Everything I need from lens in my photography need is there right now for the taking (or soon enough for the Zuiko 60mm macro) and all that for insanely low price when considering lens quality (12/45/75mm, pre-release review of 60mm macro, Panasonic 12-35). To conclude, I am happy I jumped the ship from DX to m4/3. (mah)
  • I just traded in all my Nikon DX gear yesterday. Yes, I traded it all in for the OM-D. This e-mail can be considered as a long "thank you" note both to you and Nikon, and an additional goodbye to Nikon for my consumer/hobbyist/enthusiast needs. (aw)
  • So, let's say the DX line ends up dying, and the only viable upgrade path is FX. So buy a...D600, D800? No; screw you, Nikon. If I sell my DX lenses and body, all else being equal, I'd have no reason to favour Nikon over Canon. (tb)
  • Earlier this month I decided to experiment by ordering a Panasonic G5 with the 14, 20, and 45mm prime lenses. I was able to get the body and all three lenses for less than $2000. Well, a week later I sold off all the Nikon gear except for my D200 body (I just can't let her go for nostalgic reasons) and feel like I have "seen the light". (js)

Here's what Nikon has to do to keep this leaking from becoming a deluge:

  1. Iterate the D5100, D7000, and D300s. This must be done within the next six to nine months, making them all state-of-the-art. This is becoming a little trickier than it was, as these DX bodies are larger and heavier than most users actually want, especially as they see bodies like the OM-D, G5, and NEX-6/7 delivering most of what they need in a much smaller package.
  2. Plug the lens lineup holes. At a minimum: a wide fast, small prime and a fast mid-range zoom with VR. But ultimately, DX has to come close to match what's happening in m4/3 in terms of available lenses or else Nikon risks continuing to lose customers. Thus, we're missing probably three or four primes and two or three key zooms. But we need a start that shows that Nikon sees the gaps and will move to fill them, and we need it soon.
  3. Establish a strong marketing message. Performance near that of the FX cameras, but with smaller size, weight, lower cost, and no system drawbacks (e.g. missing lenses). Oops. Have to do #1 and #2 first.
  4. Better understand the DX user. In particular, the D300 user seems to be completely misunderstood by Nikon. I'll have to admit, that when the D3 first came out, I was a bit off in my understanding of the D300 user, too. The message at the time seemed to be: "baby D3 sacrifices low light performance at a lower cost." As the D3x appeared, I wondered if the 1.5x reach of DX was still really necessary for some shooters, let alone whether a "pro DX" was needed. But then I did a survey of my site readers and D300 users and found that I was wrong: there's still a strong demand for a pro-level DX body. Wildlife shooters, in particular, find DX the right compromise (if only they had a state-of-the-art DX body ;~). Nikon just doesn't seem to see these users well. Indeed, they don't see the FX wildlife users well, either. This is a very tricky problem for Nikon. Historically, they served the enthusiast and pro best. Today, they seem to be seeking any and every new consumer user they can find. My prediction is that Nikon can't survive as a mass market, consumer-oriented, consumer electronics company. Thus, failing to understand their traditional customer perfectly is a big liability.

One big problem is Nikon's go-it-alone attitude. The NIH (not invented here) problem is endemic amongst the Japanese camera companies, but two mirrorless entries figured something out that's important: if you encourage an ecosystem of suppliers around your core offerings, the third-party ecosystem eventually adds health and growth to the main players. m4/3 is one example of a thriving ecosystem. Sony NEX is starting to become another. Neither of these are "open systems"; they're closed partnerships whereby the mount information is shared to third-party players. Still, it isn't one company playing alone and forcing others to reverse engineer their communication signals. It was telling, for example, that at Photokina 2012 the Nikon booth had almost no evidence of any third party products. So I'm going to add a fifth thing to my list:

5. If Nikon is going to go it alone, they have to provide everything the DX user needs. This makes the lens line holes even more problematic, as Nikon is doing nothing to fill them themselves and doing nothing to see that others might fill them. How arrogant is that?

Overall, here in late 2012 the state of the DX market is this: Nikon is serving the low-end customer decently, the high-end customer much more poorly. This is not something they should want to continue, especially since those high-end customers (D7000, D300s users) are leaking downwards (to m4/3, NEX, X-Pro1).

Some may think I'm tilting at windmills here (Nikon themselves is probably included in that group). After all, Nikon's sales have never been higher, and they seem to be growing. Sure, and GM sold a lot of cars right up to their collapse, too. Sales are not by themselves an indication of health of a company or that they understand their customers or what to do for them. Sales can be goosed by sales and marketing techniques that ultimately undermine a company's brand reputation and user base. Other than Nikon's FX products, all of their cameras seem to be on constant sale here in the US, with instant rebates the norm, and those goosed upwards whenever sales volume lags a bit. So one thing about DX in 2012 is that it's constantly on sale. To me, that's a sign of weakness. I believe Nikon needs to shore up DX before the weakness becomes permanent.

 


 

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