E D I T O R I A L – 01-2013

The D300s gap

Currently Nikon has a huge gap in its lineup: The pro DX camera.

For years people were told that the DX format was the way to go and all you ever need. For sure, this had to do with limitations on sensor production which first had to be overcome before a somewhat affordable 35mm format camera could be offered. Nikon was late to the 35mm sensor arena, but when they decided to enter it in 2007 with the D3 the game changed considerably. Nikon was the underdog when it came to noise performance. The used sensors were excellent at lower ISOs up to 400 and the colors where awesome. With the D3 – and the D700 that followed – Nikon was suddenly the high-ISO king at moderate 12 MP resolution.

Also the D300 – introduced together with the D3 in the summer of 2007 – improved the high ISO capabilities and offers very good performance at least up to ISO 800 and in most cases also at ISO 1600. The refresh to the D300s model in 2009 with the addition of video and a second card slot left the sensor itself untouched.

But the success of the 2008-2011 dream team of the 12 megapixel D300(s), D700 and D3 is also based on speed. All of these cameras offered 8 pictures per second (D300 and D700 with the help of the same (!) battery grip and the EN-EL4 battery) and the same, professional autofocus system. The fact that the focus system of the D3 is also used in the D300 almost seems as a miracle from today’s perspective. All of this puts the D300 in a sweet spot. For a midrange price buyers get one of the best autofocus systems available, the option of 8 frames per second continuous shooting and with the D300s refresh also video in a professional, sturdy body.

But what happened during the last five years? On the top of the range the D3 got a refresh to the D3s and was then replaced by the D4. Both – the D3s and the D4 – are using sensors that did not appear in another body (yet). For the improved 12 MP sensor of the D3s it seems rather unlikely that we will see it again in a Nikon product. For the 16 MP D4 sensor there is still hope, but rumors indicate that Nikon does not want to harm the D4 sales.

The upper midrange saw the replacement of the D700 by the D800. 12 MP versus 36 MP. It still offers the superb 3500FX autofocus module with 51 focus points. Some sample variation in the early batches caused for quite some discussions about the focus reliability, but in general the D800 still offers top of the line focus performance. What is lost now is speed. Only 4 pictures per seconds at full and 6 pictures at DX resolution put it below the D700. Because of the increase of resolution from 12 MP to 36 MP and the speed loss it can be argued, that the D800 is not a direct replacement for the D700. In regard to high ISO the D800 is better in my opinion since a down-sampled picture of the D800 will always beat the D700 for noise. The dynamic range is also a vast improvement.

And the midrange DX camera? D300s. Since 2009 with a direct heritage of a 2007 camera. This camera design turns six years old in August. Newer sensors offer a big improvement in resolution, high ISO noise and – almost more important – dynamic range. The sub-400€ entry level camera is 24 MP now and offers 2 stops more of dynamic range with cleaner ISO 1600. Even the two year old D7000 offers a better 16 MP sensor, but has other significant shortcomings (body / AF).

Summing it all up we have right now three professional camera bodies: D4, D800 and D300s. The new, smaller body design introduced with the D7000 – and slightly improved with the D600 – simply does not apply as such: crippled AF system, no AF-ON button, no direct metering mode switch and too small for some people. If you really want a pro-grade DX body the venerable D300s is your only choice right now. If you want an up-to date speed oriented camera with superb ISO performance the D4 is the only choice (ouch). Nikon right now urgently needs two things:

– a smaller D4 at reduced cost – like the D700 was to the D3. Not everybody needs 36 MP.

– The D300s replacement. Let’s hope that Nikon does not top out the DX range with a D7000 style body. I repeat it: The D7000 is no pro-level body. If they drop the D300 style body in the DX range, many people will leave the Nikon system.

The smaller D4 will most likely not happen. In the FX range the D600 has complicated things a bit. I do not see a D800 style body fitting between the D600 and D800. Pricing it higher than the D800 might seems to be the only option, but this would narrow the market pretty much.

I have a slight hope that we might see a D300s replacement in a D800 style body. We would almost be back in the position of the years 2008-2011: A battery shared among three different cameras, a battery grip (MB-D12) for two compatible cameras and the same level of autofocus performance. A key factor would be the sensor. It would be ideal to use the 24 MP sensor from the D3200 as a starting point and to improve it. If they can bring the data processing up to a speed that allows for 8 frames per second (with the grip) they have a winner.

The gap that is currently present in the lineup can be seen from two perspectives:
Nikon had – starting with the D300 and D700 – two pro bodies without integrated grip in their portfolio. Right now they still have, but the sub-2000€ option is now essentially five years old. If they drop the pro body in the DX range, only the D800 is left. I cannot imagine that this will happen.

The second way to look at it starts with the question: Where does DX end? If they make a D7000 style body the top of the line, the message is clear. DX is for consumers only and if you want a pro body with pro buttons, specs and autofocus you need to spend more than 2000 €. Canon will be happy to sell appropriate bodies to the confused customers.

In my opinion we might come to the conclusion that the setup of D300(s), D700 and D3 was the most balanced that Nikon had to offer in recent years. Right now they seem a bit clueless and lost – especially regarding the pro DX model.