First Digital Decade Top 10

article first appeared 12/09

The top Nikon things that changed the way you shoot in the 21st century.

It's that time of year when every media outlet makes lists of most important things that happened during the year. Some have taken to doing First Decade of the Twenty-First Century lists, too. I normally don't succumb to creating trendy content, but as I noted in a previous article, we're at the end of the first decade of serious digital shooting. As it turns out, Nikon has introduced a number of products in that decade that have changed the way we shoot. That's a collective "we", by the way, not a personal we. That's important, as you'll see from the list I present.

This list is limited to Nikon digital products that appeared from late 1999 until late 2009. While there were certainly products from other companies that changed the way we shoot and that influenced follow-on Nikon products, my point here is to show what Nikon did to change the way we shoot during the first truly digital photography decade. I'm going to do this in chronological order.

  1. D1h. While one could argue that the D1 itself is the camera that produced the change, as it was the first non-hybrid, professional DSLR, and at an "affordable" price to boot, I think that the real stampede of change didn't happen until the D1h appeared. First, the D1h (and D1x introduced at the same time) fixed all the niggly bits that Nikon got wrong with the D1. The D1 was a modal camera, wasn't really mapped well to a Color Space, and showed it's Generation 1 status pretty much throughout the design. The D1h fixed all that, and because it did, it was jumped on by pros everywhere.
  2. 70-200mm f/2.8G (original version). Despite all the recent criticism that it's weak on FX in the corners, this lens was a revelation when it appeared. First, there was the VR, something that Nikon was a bit late getting to considering that they had the original patent on lens stabilization. VR opened up a new ability in shooting we didn't have before.
  3. 200-400mm f/4G (original version). It shouldn't have been as much of a surprise as it was, as Nikon had a similar lens back in 1984, about the peak of the manual focus days. But as much as that original lens was liked, it was produced in small quantities and never really changed the way the majority shot. It was mostly forgotten by the time the 200-400mm f/4G AF-S VR came along. The new version fits nicely into any pro bag, and it performs (mostly) at the level we expect of the big f/2.8 and f/4 exotics. For near subjects, it's as good as the lenses it competes against. It's only when you start shooting near infinity or require the extra reach of a teleconverter that I want to move to the exotics. But the flexibility the 200-400mm gives you over the exotics is unmistakeable, and it changed the way many shoot, including myself.
  4. D70. The first stampede from film to digital on the Nikon side started with the D70. While pros were moving into D1 series and D2h bodies, we only had a fairly expensive D100 for the rest of the Nikon crowd, so the mass rush to DSLRs hadn't really started yet for Nikon. With the D70, the rush not only started, but there was a frenzy to the rush. Part of that was because of the next item on our list
  5. 18-70mm DX. Beyond giving the D70 (and D100 and D1 crowd) a 28-105mm equivalent lens, this lens proved that Nikon was capable of producing a consumer-priced zoom that was as capable as many higher-end lenses. We had hints of that prior to the 18-70mm, but not only was the 18-70mm a good lens, it was the right lens for the moment. Moreover, it kicked off a full series of DX zooms, each of which pushed some aspect that the 18-70mm pioneered into some new, better territory. Coupled with the D70, the 18-70mm was Nikon's second stage of DSLR liftoff, and perhaps a stronger stage than the first.
  6. 70-300mm VR. The interesting thing is this: the previous iterations of this lens pretty much sucked. But the VR iteration got it right. Very right. So right that a handful of D3x shooters are currently using it over some pro lenses. Again, this is part of that second stage of Nikon's DSLR liftoff. Note that the cameras Nikon was producing during this period (D70s, D80, D200) all gained from this lens, as it meant that you could put together a highly competent kit that ranged from 18mm to 300mm without breaking the bank. The 70-300mm VR was the right lens at the right time.
  7. D3. Bang. Big Bang. Loud Big Bang. Loud Unavoidable Big Bang. This camera changed more than the Nikon shooters' world, it sent a signal that Nikon was back trying to absolutely dominate the pro camera ranks. It completely reversed a decades long trend of Canon gobbling away at the photojournalism and sports shooter ranks. Expectations about what lighting you could shoot well under changed overnight. Expectations about focus performance changed. And guess what, it had a baby brother, the D300. The D3 introduction was as dramatic and game changing as anything else on this list. And the D3 also provided the sensor for the D700, which brought the same capabilities to a larger group of shooters. 
  8. 14-24mm f/2.8G. It's supposed to be difficult to make a fast, sharp, defect free wide angle prime. That this lens covers four primes (14mm, 18mm, 20mm, 24mm) and does it better than all four of those primes is pretty incredible. This lens is one of a very small handful that I'm always happy to find on the front of my camera (70-200mm f/2.8, 200mm f/2, 400mm f/2.8, 24mm PC-E round out the list). Yes, it's that good, and it changes our expectations of how good zooms should be.
  9. D3x. This was my most difficult choice. Another candidate that got clipped by this was the 24mm PC-E, which definitely let us shoot in new ways and with new expectations. But here's the thing: from base ISO to about ISO 800, the D3x is simply incredible (with the right lens, one of which may be that very 24mm PC-E that it kicked off the list, which is why I mentioned the lens). Shot correctly, the D3x simply moves we Nikon SLR shooters into something close to the medium format league. Drop dead gorgeous tonality down into the blacks. A solid dynamic range that can handle tough highlights. And enough pixels to clog your system. Between the D3 and the D3x, Nikon totally changed the expectations we have about what our pixels should look like. Yet...
  10. D3s. BANG. BIGGER BANG. LOUDER BIGGER BANG. Are you kidding me? If you had asked me if I would be willing to shoot in my darkly lit gym at ISO 12,800 and print that at 19" I would have told you that this would be as likely as me being abducted by aliens. Well, pull up the mothership, I'm ready to climb aboard.

Arguably, there are other goodies that perhaps belong on the list:

  • SB-800. i-TTL basically fixed many of the flash issues we had in moving to digital. And it did change the way we shoot by adding a solid wireless capability.
  • 105mm Micro-Nikkor VR. Handheld macro (or at least semi-macro, as 1:1 macro doesn't quite work) is something new in our world. But not enough to get on the Top Ten list.
  • 18-55mm VR + 55-200mm VR. Two lenses that Nikon has been selling for about US$100 each in kits. You'd think that a US$100 lens would be terrible. But just the opposite is true: these are supremely competent lenses, and the two of them together simply open up new avenues to the entry ranks.
  • Any number of bodies (D2h, D2x, D200, D300, D700, and D90 come to mind). It's not that any of these bodies is particularly bad or not deserving of mention (after all I'm mentioning them! ;~). It's that they didn't really unlock a new world quite the way or as dramatically as the bodies I mentioned did. The D90 probably comes closest due its video implementation. Shooting video obviously changes the way we shoot, which is one of my definitional things in deciding what goes on this list. And some might argue that the D700 is the D70 for the FX generation. Close, but no cigar.

And now for my decem digital dud decisions of the decade (again chronological). [When I originally wrote those words, a lot of people misinterpreted my alliteration as meaning the products themselves were duds. No, the decisions made behind the product was the real dud.]   Here are the 10 product decisions that Nikon made that were the most questionable:

  1. 24-120mm VR (original f/3.5-5.6 version). On paper, looks good. On DX, looked okay. On FX, well, not so much. Considering that the focal length range is just about right for an FX all-around lens, this lens started out looking like a winner on paper and ended the decade looking like a loser in practice. Thankfully, it was replaced by the f/4 version.
  2. D2h. Basically a case of over promise and under perform. Nikon made a big deal about the noise properties of their first totally Nikon sensor. Too bad they didn't get the filtration on top of it right, as the near IR pollution quickly sent serious users running for an expensive Hot Mirror filter for all their lenses. And 4mp turned out to be too little in the wake of Canon's megapixel onslaught. Funny thing is, in the right hands with the right accessories and technique, the D2h was better than it is usually given credit for. And the camera itself (body, battery, autofocus, metering, etc.) was top notch. Oh, and did I mention the light meter that almost certainly died at some point when you were shooting? Still, sensor decisions killed the D2h so badly that Nikon had to unload the remaining inventory at steep discount.
  3. Quite a few Coolpix. Okay, most Coolpix. But the 2500, SQ, and virtually all of the L, S, and P series didn't do much for Nikon's reputation as a quality, high performance, high technology company. Hey, but at least we can now draw on the LCD and project low quality images on walls, and pretend our Coolpix is a phone that can't actually call anyone.
  4. PictureProject. Nikon's software tends to be terrible in UI design and usability, slow in keeping up with OS changes, and buggy in strange ways, but PictureProject took these things to new heights. Even Nikon gave up on it (though most users beat them to it).
  5. D2x White Balance encryption. It's bad enough that spectral information useful for raw conversions is proprietary, but this decision was a real problem as it slowed third-party converter development and support for Nikon products and caused a Nikon/Adobe standoff until a compromise was finally negotiated.
  6. D80. Biasing matrix metering to strongly weight the active autofocus sensor was a huge mistake. People would buy the D80 expecting high quality results and they'd get overexposed and underexposed images, and they couldn't figure out what triggered it. Even a slight movement of the camera changed the exposure dramatically in many scenes. It didn't help that the initial D80 shipments had real issues with amp noise, either.
  7. Stopping production of the 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S. A better mid-range lens than pretty much everything other than the 24-70mm, and it would have been a real winner with D700 users, especially if it were updated with VR. Fortunately, Nikon did eventually introduce a VR version to go with the D600. But there was a period when good 24-85mm FX lens was available from Nikon (the f/2.8-4 is only fair).
  8. D40. Not the worst of the items in this list, by far. But the removal of the screw drive was a big decision that hasn't been well received by the Nikon faithful. Also, a three-sensor AF system is basically a "focus in the center of the frame" system. Nikon took a little too much out of the cameras to get their low-cost entry product. And the D40 spawned a string of that: D40x, D60, D3000. All these cameras are a bit too oversimplified on the technical side to hit a low price point. Of course, that means that the customer will outgrow these cameras and have to buy a higher priced Nikon.
  9. 24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S. Surprised to see that lens on this list? It's here because it reflects Nikon's inability to understand that VR is sometimes useful in the midrange, especially for some customers, and the lens on which they should have shown us that they understand that is this very lens (extra credit: the 17-55mm f/2.8 DX needs it, too). The extension to 24mm from 28mm at the wide end was useful, and the better image quality was nice, too, but this lens just screams for VR.
  10. 85mm f/3.5 Micro-Nikkor DX. I have no idea what Nikon was thinking here. Whoever prioritized an unnecessary low-cost macro lens over all the other things that the DX lens lineup needs is missing a cog. Note that this is one of the first Nikkors in a long time that was introduced and didn't sell out immediately (or ever that I can tell). And it's relatively inexpensive as lenses go. Is that lack of a sellout a clue of a mistaken decision? You bet. Doesn't make it a bad lens—it's actually pretty good—but DX users really needed other lenses, not this one.

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