What Camera Changes Are Coming?

(commentary)

The rumor of a new flash technology from Canon (E-TTL III) coupled with the sales decline in DSLRs gave me a bit of an Aha! moment recently. 

2015 was (is?) scheduled to be a “change year” for Nikon. By that I mean we’re in the four-year boundary between pro generations from Nikon (1999, 2003, 2007, 2012 [sic], 2015, 2019). 

Someone recently asked me if Nikon has a plan or if they’re just calling audibles. For sure they have a plan, and it involves introducing new high-end technology the year prior to the Summer Olympics. That then trickles down to the rest of the lineup over the coming years, and then the whole process is repeated prior to the next Olympics. Spice that with a few surprises mid-cycle. We didn’t get the expected pro product in 2011 because of the quake/tsunami, but we did get the mid-generational update (D4s) on the expected time boundary. 

Looking at history, we see a lot of things the influenced the cameras moving forward:

  • D1 generation: introduction of digital to pro cameras, introduction of first D-TTL, introduction of new batteries, loss of changeable focus screens, introduction of nascent WiFi options, etc.
  • D2 generation: introduction of yet another TTL, introduction of lithium batteries, introduction of CMOS sensors, improvement of WiFi options, etc.
  • D3 generation: introduction of yet another TTL (i-TTL), introduction of full frame (FX), improvement of WiFi options, introduction of video (D3s), etc.
  • D4 generation: introduction of Ethernet, introduction of new batteries ;~)


The D5, due in August of 2015, is likely to bring us either further refinements of previous technologies (that Ethernet in the D4 was never fleshed out) or new ones (everyone hopes for radio-controlled wireless flash). 

It’s actually critical for Nikon that the D5 be introduced with things that are compelling to users in order to get them to buy the update. Yes, sensor improvements are a given, but realistically the group that uses a D4 or D4s (or even a D3s) isn’t the group that wants 50mp+. What they want is performance in the pixels themselves, maybe a few more. So I doubt that the D5 will go beyond 24mp. Indeed, rumors have it that it will be between 16mp and 24mp and keep the emphasis on low light performance. 

And that’s part of the issue now: the camera makers need something compelling (there’s that word again), not iterative sensor improvement. Sure, we’ll take the sensor improvement every time it’s offered us, but it’s not what is driving camera sales now. 

So what are the areas where Nikon could make more compelling? Try these:

  • Radio wireless TTL. Since I already mentioned it, I’ll put it first. Visual wireless TTL imposes a lot of restrictions. Two photographers using Nikon flash at the same event tend to trigger each other’s units ;~).  
  • Communication. The WU-1a/b approach used by most of the cameras is way behind the times. The WT-5 approach used at the top end needed a lot more attention paid to it to flesh out all of its possibilities. Simply put, we live in a world where we need to move data fast, and often wirelessly. Nikon’s approach here has been, to put it mildly, ungainly. A full suite of Infrastructure/Ad Hoc capabilities for WiFi is needed, complete with either NFC and/or Bluetooth auto connection. 
  • Faster connections. And while we’re at it, why are almost all the cameras still USB 2.0 and none are 802.11ac? It seems like all those extra pixels would like to get somewhere faster, but can’t. The nascent Ethernet on the D4/D4s is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t exactly state-of-the-art, let alone fully developed by Nikon.
  • Programmability. Some might argue that we’ve got programmable buttons and Custom Settings and Banks (User Sets on consumer bodies), so the camera is programmable. Okay. That definition of “programmable” comes from 1980. Seriously. Nikon’s still using the same logic and practices they established with the Sharp Wizard and the N90s. Which were mostly “completed” with the F5 in the mid-90’s. It’s 20 years later dudes. The notion of programmability has changed since then. Put another way, with Nikon cameras, there’s not an app for that. There should be. But even if Nikon wanted to stick with the tried-and-true, that system needs to be cleaned up, too. Hardcoded names for a settings file mean that you can only Save/Load one possible configuration to the camera from your card. It should be unlimited and user-namable. 
  • Best practices. I happen to like the D5500’s tilt/swivel rear LCD. Why is it only on a lower end camera? Shouldn’t the best cameras have the best features? To some degree, Nikon does this reasonably (lower end AF systems on lower end cameras, for example), but there are too many exceptions that seem arbitrary. 
  • Electronic shutter. One of the joys of using the Nikon 1 is the ability to just Run Silent, Run Deep. Yes, I can shoot 60 fps for a second without making a sound. On the cameras that I have that do support silent shooting, I tend to only use them in modes that generate sounds when I need the feedback. Otherwise, I configure for Silent Running. (Two movie references in one bullet ;~). True, with the large megapixel CMOS sensors we’re still in the realm of rolling shutter issues. But the D5 won’t be a large megapixel count, and in the next generation we’re going to see rolling shutter mostly go away. Time to embrace the electronic.
  • Better views. Since we have an overlay ability on the focus screen of most Nikon DSLRs, it’s curious that it’s rarely used for much that’s useful. Of course I’d want control over what appears, but more could be done, even simple things like “significant highlight blowout alert.” We finally have live horizon markings done this way in a couple of cameras, but again, that’s just a start. Likewise, we still don’t have focus peaking on Nikon DSLRs, and the Live View abilities leave much to be desired. Other companies are being much more innovative here. And why can’t we shoot in Live View but have an EVF in the viewfinder appear? Seems to me one of the critical things about shooting is getting everything right, and Nikon used to have the reputation for being the best at putting everything you needed to know in the viewfinder where you could see it. Others do it better now. 
  • New technologies. Why are we still using a top LCD? Why isn’t it an e-Paper variant that retains current state even when powered off? Why haven’t we fully embraced E-type lenses and have a complete set of them available? Why is touchscreen on the rear LCD so rare still? Nikon maneuvers their DSLR designs as if they’re battleships with a broken rudder. 
  • Simple. The Df seemed like it might address this, but it’s really a D610’s complexity in an F3’s cladding. Why isn’t there a simpler DSLR? Note I didn’t say lower-end or consumer, but “simpler.” For many still photographers exposure and focus are all we really need to control and our DSLRs are chock full of things we simply never use. Take the Df and simplify it (and fix its shortcomings, too ;~). Yes, taking video out was a good simplification, but that’s about all Nikon really took out. The demand for an FM3D type of camera has been present for over a decade now, and it hasn’t actually gone away with the Df, though it was tempered somewhat by that camera.  


I could go on, but I wanted to mostly point out areas that dedicated Nikon users keep asking for, but not getting. Yes, we’ll get sensor improvements and other performance improvements in any new generation of camera. We assume we’ll get those due to the nature of high tech. What seems to be lagging is the basic everyday nuts and bolts that help us get our work done faster and more effectively, which is what I’ve concentrated on here.

My fear is that what we’ll get from Nikon in a D5 is more limited and doesn’t functionally change or modernize the camera:

  • Improvements/changes to the focus system.
  • 4K video and other video improvements.
  • More megapixels with improved sensor.
  • Modest feature creep.


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