What a D400 Should Be

(commentary)

We're getting near the point where we either finally get our D300s replacement, or we never get one. A lot of you believe that the mythical D400 is the Rip Van Winkle of DSLRs, albeit destined to never wake up. I still believe that Mr. Van D400 will eventually wake, and my best guess would be he needs to break his slumber late this summer (see next article).

Let's start with why the D7100 isn't the D300s replacement: Consumer versus Professional. That's the real underlying difference between a D600 and D800, it's the underlying difference between the original D90 and D300, and it should be the difference between the D7100 and the D400.

The question, of course, is what makes something professional in Nikon's thinking?

Right now, the answer is slightly confusing, as at first the specs look really close between consumer and pro bodies. The D600 is listed as a consumer camera by Nikon, the D800 as professional. So what's the difference between them other than the 12mp difference in pixel count? Closer inspection reveals the following. Full metal chassis for the pro camera versus partial. Additional crop modes in the pro camera versus one in the consumer model. Slightly compromised video and fixed aperture on the consumer body versus more video options on the HDMI port plus manual power aperture change in Live View/Video. The addition of TIFF support for the pro bodies. Consumer 2016-pixel versus pro 91,000-pixel metering, which requires a bit more CPU. Simplified 2/3 frame consumer bracketing versus 2 to 9 frame pro bracketing. Overloaded buttons on the consumer body versus dedicated ISO/WB/QUAL buttons and a dedicated AF-On button. The pro bodies get more advanced, longer-life shutters. The pro bodies get PC Sync sockets and 10-pin remote connectors, while the consumer bodies go without PC Sync and use IR or a simplified MC remote. The consumer bodies get U1 and U2 user settings, while the pro bodies get settings banks. Not a lot of big changes, but the sum of the changes is tangible for those that use their cameras heavily.

Given Nikon's iterative process, it's likely that any D300 replacement would have all the things just listed above as pro instead of the consumer variations that are in the D7100. But is that enough for differentiation?

No.

Given Nikon's long-held modus operandi, a D400 would need a focus and/or frame rate improvement over both the D300 and the D7100, preferably both. That, folks, may be why we're waiting: 24mp at 10 fps is more data than a D4 is moving around. A D400 would also need a substantive buffer improvement in terms of hardware: Nikon would need to stick another DRAM module in and maybe even boost the size of those modules. So add these things to the previous list and you probably have Nikon's approximate D400 design goal.

Some of you have been suggesting that fewer megapixels would be okay. Indeed, a lot of you would sacrifice pixels for speed, just as the pro FX users have to. I doubt that's Nikon's intent, though, nor is it a notion I agree with. Nikon is on a pixel craze, and they've got sensors with relative large saturation wells and low read noise, so they like being able to say "lots of pixels, low noise." I believe a professional DX camera these days has to be at least 24mp (remember, it's likely to have multiple crop modes).

Is all that what a D400 should be?

Probably not.

This is where things get tricky, because we're going through a few market gyrations that impact the definition of what a D400 should be. I'd take all of the above plus add just a few things. For example:

  • On sensor supplemental focus. Imagine this: the mirror system stays for 8 fps and we have the usual Nikon focus system, but…we get a "mirror lift" mode that reveals phase detect on the sensor ala the Nikon 1. Yes, there may be some limitations with that mode (limited area, maybe no tracking), but coupled with the next bit it just extends the camera into new capabilities a pro would love.
  • Electronic shutter mode. Again, ala the Nikon 1, this lifts frame rates beyond the 8 fps the mechanical shutter provides. Nikon has demonstrated 15 fps with autofocus on the Nikon 1, why not have the same thing on a D400, even if it was a crop?
  • Sony's gadgetry. Sony is moving towards WiFi, GPS, and more built in, and it already has an EVF. I think Nikon should probably match this, but I doubt they will. I wish they'd stop proliferating these things via external gadgets, as the extra cables and appendages get in the way for pros. But almost certainly we'll get WiFi support via an adapter, and the usual GPS support. What we really need is a more integrated radio system that supports camera control and remote flash.
  • The inevitable video stuff. Uncompressed HDMI out and the full set of video controls, including power aperture, seem likely. Personally, I think Nikon's going the wrong path with video these days. The true videographers are much more likely to look at Blackmagic Design, GoPro, RED, Canon's C series, and Sony's F series cameras. Nikon isn't really winning any of them over with their consumerish video moves. Nikon either needs a dedicated video camera line, or it needs to understand the video user more. That means ProRes or DNxHD support, CinemaDNG support, metadata support, and more.


Of course, with a sophisticated DX camera appearing we'd be back to my chant of late: DX needs some lens love. A D400 as described above would really need some lens love. Not so much above 50mm, as the FX glass can pretty much suffice for that. It's in the wide angle and mid-range where such a camera would beg for some new lenses. So I have to say that not only should Nikon introduce the D400 as outlined above, but it needs to (1) refresh the 12-24mm f/4, (2) add a 16-50 or 16-85mm f/4 VR, (3) refresh the 17-55mm f/2.8 with VR, and (4) deliver at least one or two f/2 wide angle primes (16mm and 18mm would be nice, some might prefer 20mm).

Believe it or not, there are ton of DX-using pros out there, even today. Far more than you might think, and it was the D3/D300 launch that really pulled them in. Why? Because while the D300 didn't have the D3's insane high ISO capabilities, it had pretty much everything else for US$3200 less. That buys a lot of useful glass or lets you shoot "pro" at an "affordable" cost, so it pulled more folk into the pro Nikon ranks than ever before. The same equation would still be true today if done right. Those D300 folk are chomping at the bit for another upgrade to their shooting abilities, and there's a new generation of not-so-rich who wouldn't mind trying their hand at going pro. Imagine this: come August Nikon launches a D4h and D400 simultaneously, both 24mp. Same thing would happen as happened in 2007: the Nikon faithful would be ecstatic.

So, please Nikon, pretty please with heaps of peanut butter on top, will you just make the D400 and end our torture?

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