Denial, That River in Africa

It seems to me that a lot of people are still in denial—including some of the folk designing and making decisions about DSLRs for Nikon in Japan. 

Nikon had it right in 2001 for serious photographers when they split the D1 into the D1h and D1x models. The high-end specialized DSLR can indeed be better if optimized to purpose by making such a duo. Unfortunately, the big run up of buying in the first decade of digital started pretty much every camera maker down the path of trying to make the all-in-one camera that would appeal to the masses at any given price point. Nikon currently has five DSLRs that fit that pretty much fit that description (D3300, D5500, D7200, D610, and D750). That’s more than enough, I think. 

The reason I’m writing about this (again) is the D5/D500. I see quite a few people agonizing over whether they should get a D500, a D5, or maybe even a bargain D4/D4s. But these are all specialized cameras. When I wrote in my D500 review that most people would be well-served and perhaps better served by a D7200, I meant it. The D7200 has some “roundings” to it that make for a better general purpose camera, particularly the inclusion of the built-in flash. Almost every aspect that the D7200 gives up to the D500 is in performance-oriented shooting: frames per second, buffer, focus on moving subjects, etc.

People get seriously hung up on the “state of the art” focus system in the D500. Yes, it has that. If you’re shooting sports of wildlife you’ll almost certainly see a real difference, especially if you’re a burst shooter. Other kinds of shooting, not so much. 

The D5 (and D4/D4s) are even more specialized cameras. The D5 sacrifices low ISO dynamic range for cleaner high ISO work. The D4/D4s have 16mp sensors with an AA filter, making them somewhat less useful for things like landscape work, but great for photo journalism work.  

Thing is, most people can’t afford more than one camera. Or more accurately: more than one new body while keeping their older DSLR as a backup. Thus, if you’re a generalist in your shooting, you need to pay attention to the balance of features, performance, and quality. I’ve written it before and I believe it to still be true today: the D8xx (currently D810) is Nikon’s best all-around DSLR. It excels for landscape and studio work. It handles events and even sports not perfectly but still quite well. Plus including a 15mp DX crop—there’s also an intermediary 24mp 1.2x crop at 6 fps—means that you can also reliably use a D810 for wildlife and not give up the FX-lack-of-reach issue, too. It has a built-in flash that can be set to commander mode, and it has pretty much every D4 generation feature Nikon offered, including some that disappeared in the D5 generation (e.g. 1/320 flash sync). Probably the biggest issue with the D810 is that the video tends to produce a few more artifacts than the rest of the lineup, partly due to having to downsample such a large megapixel count.

Ironically, the D810 is basically the D4x idea in the smaller body. 

Still, I’ve argued for 15 years now that the split in pro, specialized models is highly desired, especially among Nikon’s faithful, the enthusiast group. Having a pair of bodies that are exactly the same but optimized to different tasks is perfect, and why Nikon stopped doing that after the D3 generation I don’t know. 

These days I want a D5x with 54mp (give or take a few pixels). Optimized to landscape, architectural, and studio shooting. Coupled with the D5 at 20mp optimized to sports, event, and wildlife shooting, that would be a hard-to-beat pair. In a pinch, either body could serve as a reasonable backup to the other. 

I’d argue further that we need the same thing at the prosumer body level (D500, D810): a D850s with the 20mp sensor, a D850x with the D5x sensor. Of course, had Nikon actually pursued my modular idea, we could just have one body and a substitutable sensor/digiboard module to do the same thing, and I’d buy more than two of those (high megapixel, high ISO, monochrome, and IR would be what I’d purchase, but there are more options than that with this approach). 

I doubt Nikon is going to do the specialized model thing I suggest, though, which is a shame. As the camera market returns back to mostly just the most serious shooters being active buyers and updaters, we’re getting less of this kind of choice (except from Sony in the A7 series). Instead, this is what’s most likely in the D5 generation:

  • The D5/D500 pairing because the D3/D300 worked so well.
  • A D850 focused on serving the pixel counter instead of a D5x.
  • Some odd extra use of the 20mp FX sensor, ala what the Df was to the D4.
  • More emphasis on making the five remaining models the all-in-one camera you’ll buy.

The last bullet begs another issue: it’s actually that group of buyers that has been the ones to migrate fastest to mirrorless and away from DSLRs. Smaller, lighter, competent, all-around cameras, that’s what the all-in-one group wants. The funny part of the story is that mirrorless didn’t completely gobble up the all-around DSLR market for one reason and pretty much one reason only: pricing. 

Every time the older mirrorless—and sometimes newer ones—go on fire sale and drop below DSLR prices, I see another wave of samplers step up to buy them. And some of those folk stick with their new mirrorless partner and become switchers. Put another way, it’s the US$550 price of the D3300 kit—and the lower prices of generation-old DSLRs still available—that’s kept things from really going wonky on Nikon (and the same thing is true for Canon, as well, though their mirrorless EOS M is starting to explore low-end DSLR pricing and could change things). The only mirrorless models that currently get under that low D3300 price bar are fire sales on Samsung models and generation-old, lower-end models such as the Sony A5000. The general purpose camera market is price sensitive, so this erosion away from DSLRs is still slow. But it’s still an erosion.

The specialized camera market, however, isn’t all that price sensitive. The relative popularity of the D500 shows that, as it’s almost twice the cost of the very capable D7200, yet still selling quite well. But it’s not a fully generalized body, so you have to consider having another body in your bag. Right now that’s probably a D810, though the difference in controls/menus/UI between the camera generations needs to be addressed.

So my prediction is this: Nikon is still following the deviation from path they made after the D3x. While Nikon’s crack teams still turn out cameras such as the D500, D810, and D5, it seems that most of Nikon’s efforts are in trying to ignite all-in-one buying at price points from US$500 to US$2000 (e.g. D3300, D5500, D7200, D610, D750). 

The next year of product announcements will prove my assertion right or wrong. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

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