PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux


What will the next FX look like?

I can’t tell you how many conversations with fellow photographers I’ve had on this topic. It’s everyone’s obsession, and everyone has different priorities for what they want to see.

The immediate answer is boring though, nobody questions it or pours much excitement over it: the next FX will be the D3X and we all know what that is now. It’s a D3 with a 24MP chip, possibly a special spin of the Sony Exmoor sensor, that resolves like the 1Ds MkIII and scales sensitivity like the D300. I think we’ll be challenged to find any other differences with the D3, except for the price which is likely even higher.

But what’s got everybody speculating wildly is the one after that. The one that will finally challenge the 5D [MkII] for the minds and hearts of all photographers.

I’ve got my own ideas for what that might look like, which I try very hard to keep realistic (i.e. in-body VR is not realistic, neither are full-color sensors or HDR sensors).

Option A: a Mini D3.

Take a (finger quotes) L.A.S.E.R. (finger quotes) and chop off the battery grip. Take out half the Expeed processing power, half of the shooting buffer and one CF card slot. Limit the speed to 5FPS and run this on one EN-EL-3e. Stop here, ship it for 1500$ less.

This is what *I* want. Realistically though, once you cut off the battery grip you’ve got all sorts of engineering challenges to fit all the important pieces again – it’s basically a new body you’re dealing with. It’s possible that Nikon doesn’t have the manpower to ship three new bodies in a year.

Competitively this will do very well even against a 16~18MP 5D MkII (speculation) sold for 2500~3000$. The Canon will resolve a bit more detail but will be forced to hand over the high-sensitivity performance crown. This is an important trophy to rob Canon of, the resolution difference will be quickly forgotten if Nikon ships this with the D3’s sensor.

In terms of internal competition, I think this has very little chance of cannibalizing sales of the D3. At 5FPS with a short buffer and weak battery, sports professional would be constantly frustrated with it. It won’t compete against the D3X either, the studio professional will want the 24MP sensor under lights. Lastly it won’t compete with the D300 because it’ll be a bit slower and heavier, and more importantly a lot more expensive.

Option A-prime: a Digital F6.

Take my option A but fit the surviving D3 pieces inside an F6 body. Grow the F6’s battery section to an EN-EL-3e size. Price it as above, but if you keep the F6 auto-focus then slash another 500$.

This is very similar to the previous proposal except that we’re starting from an existing body design. I don’t know if it’s any easier to replace the film transport with digital, mind you. The market position ought to be the same as above.

Option B: a D300X.

Replace the sensor, mirror box and viewfinder with FX-sized ones. Keep everything else the same. Charge 1000$ extra for this upgrade.

I suspect this is pretty easy. The sensor part is trivial. The mirror box is probably easy to swap as well, given that the mount and all associated clearance has to be the same size for all F-mount cameras. The viewfinder is more difficult because the mold for the cast-metal body might have to be changed. Maybe there are some optical tricks Nikon can pull to fit an FX viewfinder (with less magnification/coverage) in the same mold – this wouldn’t surprise me at all, just going back to the F100 viewfinder would do it.

I’d be happy with this, but in this case the obvious temptation for Nikon is to use a sensor that is not the D3’s. This adds some uncertainty about the competitiveness of the product, preventing Nikon from starting out the door with a known winner. What I don’t want to see happen is Nikon reaching for Sony’s 24MP Exmoor sensor, then send this D300FX head-on against a 16~18MP 5D MkII (again, speculation) and basically give Canon a free pass at the high-sensitivity performance crown for another 3 years. The extra pixels just aren’t worth it.

In terms of internal competition I don’t see a D300X robbing sales of any other product as long as its priced sufficiently above the D300. Wedding photographers would probably pick it up over a D3, sure.

Option C: a D80X/D90X.

Same process as D300X. Replace the sensor, mirror box and viewfinder with FX-sized ones. Keep everything else the same, but consider replacing the auto-focus module with a simplified D3/D300 module. Charge 1000$ extra for this upgrade.

This is one that makes me uncomfortable, because (1) for sure this will not have the D3 sensor and (2) there are some features absent in a D80/D90-type camera which I would expect in a >$2K camera. But if the image quality is mostly there and the price is lowest, who’s to argue? One day we’ll need an 10-series FX camera, but I’d prefer it not come immediately next.

One thing I like about this option however, is that the pressure to choose a high-resolution sensor is much less. I’d see Nikon picking a 16MP sensor for this one today, with an excellent balance of resolution and sensitivity. At this price point this would be a product to sell to capacity for a long time.

Option D: lower the price of the D3 when the D3X comes out.

Price the D3X tightly to undermine the 1Ds Mk III, then cut $1K on the D3’s price tag to end the plagued 1D Mk III. In the process Nikon will tempt high-end amateur buyers as well.

This is my least favorite option but is the most likely one to happen this year. This might happen irrespective of other options also being chosen, perhaps even causing them to delay until later.

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  1. Interesting. I wonder if full frame will make it down to a camera like the D80. I suspect not for 3-5 years, if ever. I think we are going to see a high resolution D3 style body announced, this is a no brainer. What I am also expecting is a full frame Dxxx series camera. If I’m being realistic I think it will be announced next year and will offer a feature set almost identical to today’s D300, just with a an FX sensor. I assume they will need to bump resolution by then, but hopefully not to more then 14-16MP… It’s a fine line between what I want and what I expect I suppose…

  2. I hope we will see a 10-series FX camera eventually, but I think it could go either way.

    In terms of imaging capabilities the D80 was a match for the D200. All it was missing was (1) high FPS, (2) magnesium body and (3) AI meter. The sensor was essentially the same – not exactly, but it’d be hard to tell, the two would take the same picture if shot side-by-side.

    The D90 is likely to do the same to the D300.

    So then at some point in the future (I say ~3 years) I would imagine a similar camera to appear below a 100-series FX.

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