What's Up with DX?

First some history:

  • Last D3xxx update: August 2016, after a slightly over two year interval, and with very little difference to show for it.
  • Last D5xxx update: November 2016, on about a one-and-a-half year interval, but again with very little difference.
  • Last D7xxx update: April 2017, pretty much on the expected two year interval and with substantive differences.
  • Last Dxxx update: January 2016, after an eight-year delay, complete with dramatic differences.

Up through 2010, DX was pretty much on a very predictable and regular schedule: D3xxx type bodies every year, D7xxx and Dxxx type bodies every two years. The D5xxx snuck in there and started with some fast iteration—three bodies in four years—then went to an every two year refresh. Eventually the D3xxx went to two year intervals, too.

Which means, here in 2018 a new D3500 and D5700 should show up, and if the Dxxx bodies had returned to a "normal" schedule, we'd probably get a D510, too. 

Here in the US, the D3400 is Nikon's best selling body, and by far. That's true whether you measure by sales dollars or units. The second-highest in dollars is the D850, the second-highest in units is the D5600. 

For several years I've had "mirrorless" listed as the likely low-end DX successor on my Nikon Products Page. Indeed, before I had to update the page to include the D3400 and D5600, I had "mirrorless" marked in both those slots.

Given the success of the EOS M models, particularly in the Asian markets, one would think that Nikon would be in that same space by now. The curious thing that happened in the past year is that Nikon has tested, retested, shuffled, and reshuffled plans for DX interchangeable lens cameras several times. 

I know, for instance, that Nikon tested three different approaches to DX mirrorless: (1) current DX mount; (2) new mirrorless mount (same as new FX mirrorless); and (3) new mirrorless mount (different than new FX mirrorless). #3 seems to have been rejected at some point. #2 seems problematic given how big that mount is (has implications on lens size versus competitors, plus dictates a "tall" camera due to the opening size). 

Which leaves #1, which has its own problems because it would have a mount snout the other mirrorless competitors don't. 

So let's look at recent Nikkor lens releases for a moment. In the past three years, here's the sum total DX lens introductions:

  • AF-P 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6G VR
  • AF-P 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR and non-VR
  • AF-P 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G VR and non-VR

Notice a trend? 

Yep, it's the consumer zoom trio updated to lens motors that would work well with mirrorless. The implication of moving to AF-P this way is that Nikon might have selected #1 (current DX mount) as the mirrorless choice for DX. (They'd also need to do a Canon SL-like downsizing of the body to pull this off, though. Note that the DX AF-P lenses are all very lightweight, another attribute you'd want for an entry mirrorless system. So the D3xxx body needs to downsize, too, if Nikon takes this approach.)

And yet I hear from trusted sources (note the plural) that Nikon also was working on prototyping a D500-level DX mirrorless body, too (which implies #2 or #3; probably #2 if Nikon was going to stay with the DX/FX pro combo idea that they've been so successful with). This corresponds better with Nikon's urge to go up-scale and high-end to preserve margins. Plus it would have allowed them to echo the two-camera punch they've done in the past (D1/D100, D2/D200, D3/D300, D5/D500). 

Interestingly, the D7xxx level camera is probably the most important one in the DX lineup. Yes, the D3xxx vastly outsells it, but it's the D7xxx user that's the most loyal and the most likely one Nikon will trigger an update from. The history of that line goes back to the seminal D70 and D90. The problem is this: the consumer cameras at that level have (mostly) been exceedingly good, and there's a lot of Last Camera Syndrome that occurs with purchasers of the D7xxx models.

I'm still seeing a lot of D7000 and D7100 users out there, who haven't been convinced that there's a true reason to update their camera body (they pretty much would all love for a couple of new DX lenses that complement their set, though, buzz buzz). Megapixels and video—ironic considering this line pioneered modern DSLR video—aren't compelling enough to make them upgrade. And Nikon's taking features out of the D7500 didn't help one iota, even though it's a great camera.

If DX is going to survive into the mirrorless age, Nikon needs a D70-type of camera that brings the DSLR-faithful across the river Mirrorless. Serious capability, reasonable price, excellent ergonomics/feature choices. Nikon must get those sitting on older D7xxx level bodies to upgrade, and it's not going to be full frame cameras that cost twice as much or more: they've already captured those folk with the D6xx, D750, and D8xx. There's still a very large body of shooters with D70, D80, D90, D7000, D7100, and D7200 cameras in their closet. That is truly the "core enthusiast" user that has been much of Nikon's long-term success.

Still, Nikon also needs an entry ILC point, whether it's mirrorless, DSLR, or both. The D7xxx and D500 level is not really "entry." Giving up the D3xxx/D5xxx space to "go high end" would mean further serious sales contractions and no feeder system for the future. 

With the Nikon 1 now buried in the landfill, no DLs managing to get out of HQ, and potentially nothing in the future between the Coolpix P1000 and the D7500, Nikon would be dramatically smaller. 

No this does not mean they would go out of business; but it would mean they were in a very narrow and expensive niche business and willing to give their market share to competitors. 

It would have buying implications for customers, too. Without volume products that bring in customers, dealers carrying Nikon cameras would decline dramatically. Fujifilm's recent frenzy of consumer cameras seems targeted at trying to get into Nikon's previously locked up shelf space. Fujifilm seems to be playing Nikon to continue to withdraw from the true consumer space.

Nikon's going to need an answer about what happens with DX soon (no later than March 2019, I'd say). Otherwise, inaction gets perceived as a form of action. 

A final note: back in 2003 I wrote that I thought APS-C and DX would top out at around 24mp. This was driven by some complex predictive calculations centered around cost, perceived image quality, lens resolution, diffraction, and a host of other factors. Technically, more sampling—e.g. greater than 24mp—is always better than less sampling, all else equal. The problem is that the gains become minimal and probably invisible to most customers past a certain point unless you can somehow make a massive move forward in one of the factors. There's nothing stopping you from producing a 36mp DX camera, but the real question is what would be the tangible gain in doing so? 

This isn't just a Nikon problem, it's an industry problem. Samsung opted for 28mp APS-C at one point, but that didn't produce a visible image quality change. It mostly became a specification difference that had some minor marketing impact. 

What DX (and APS-C) need now is something tangible that moves the crop sensor world forward in a way that users can easily see. The 6% luminance gain of the Fujifilm X-Trans sensor isn't it, though a total mirrorless approach and plentiful lenses are what has helped Fujifilm gain some success in the crop sensor market. The difference if it comes at the sensor needs to be more dramatic than X-Trans. The problem is, of course, that the decline in volume in ILC products comes mostly in the APS-C/DX realm, which means that you have less payback for your sensor R&D. 

And so we're in a bit of a stall in terms of APS-C and DX: no one seems to have a complete answer to how to push the crop sensor cameras forward enough to regain volume. And yes, it's time for me to jump on my soapbox and proclaim that it is workflow that's keeping those cameras mostly in the closet and not updated. 

Imagine a D4000 that has a perfectly designed communications capability—e.g. significant SnapBridge update and improvement—that really lets you post where you want to directly from the camera. Suddenly there'd be a reason to take the DSLR camera out of the closet and trade it for a new one. Indeed, it wouldn't be relegated to the closet as much, either.

I wrote about transformational last week. That's what APS-C and DX now need: something that's transformational. Otherwise, we've gone as far as we need to go.

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