An open letter to Nikon: Where’s MY full-frame?

The Nikon D800, from the Nikon home page

Dear Nikon:

Congratulations for introducing two two terrific products, the Nikon D4 and D800/800e! Both products are new benchmarks of DSLR performance, and worthy members of Nikon’s pro lineup.  Given the terrible tragedies in Japan and Thailand, I commend and congratulate you for what must have been a Herculean effort by your employees to persevere and deliver.

Now, I must ask you – where the heck is the full frame camera for the Enthusiast Photographer?

In truth, I personally can’t afford a brand-new full frame camera.  I’ve got three spawn and enough demands on my income that a $3,000 camera just isn’t going to happen.  Since plenty of Enthusiast Photographers bought and loved the D700, and I greatly covet one, I figure it is worth exploring what I’d really like to see in a full-frame camera targeted at me, because today I’d take a D700 over a D800 if someone offered me a free choice between them.  What I really want is something in the middle.  The D800 seems kind of like the D700 when it came out: a baby version of the flagship, except in this case the downsized camera was the D3x.  I definitely don’t want one of those.

So what would my full-frame camera look like?  Here’s my list (which admittedly ignores the realities and technicalities of the sensor platform):

  • Full frame sensor with 16MP-18MP.  I don’t need or want to deal with the file size that 36.3MP creates (even for JPEG).  Storage is cheap, but as a guy who takes a lot of photos on family occasions, business and personal travel and my general creative photography, the downstream burden on the rest of my technology overall is too much.  I don’t want to watch my PC wheeze an more than it already does while I try to load and edit the files.  I like very much that my backup system (an old ReadyNAS Duo with two 1TB drives in it) hasn’t maxed out yet despite a fair bit of photography since I purchased it. My 16GB cards hold plenty of photos, I don’t want to buy bigger cards any time soon…
  • D3s ISO performance.  I don’t crave more megapixels, but I really do crave ISO.  I think a lot of folks are “available light” shooters like me, using a little fill flash here and there, but the lower light I can shoot in the better.  So call it ISO 100-12,800.  You can remove the LO and HI extenders.
  • Dual SD card slots.  Don’t make me collect two completely different kinds of cards.  As a pro, that would be completely infuriating – who needs the complexity of managing different kinds of storage with different performance levels?  Maybe one (probably Compact Flash) is the primary and the SD is secondary/safety (or one for RAW and the other for JPEG) on the D300s/D800 for the pros, but I want one technology.  As a non-pro, I prefer the cost and availability of SD, but I’d take Compact Flash.  Just make ‘em the same, broadly available technology.  Sheesh.
  • D700-class autofocus.  All that great ISO performance is wasted without great AF.  This isn’t a D7000, so give me the really good stuff.
  • D7000 build.  Let’s face it – lots of buyers of the D700 weren’t professionals, so the weight and size of the D700 is wasted on most of us.  I do want a rugged metal chassis with good weather-sealing, but for the most part my equipment stays cozy, warm and safe.  I’m out and about, but not in a war zone, a jungle or the Himalayas.  Give me survivability but not a tank.
  • Lighted buttons.  Please don’t tell me this is such a high-dollar design that it is affordable only on the flagship.  We’ve got the ISO to shoot in low light, give me buttons to help.
  • Same viewfinder as the D800 with virtual horizon, etc.
  • Same metering, shutter and flash of the D800.  If you must separate the products somehow, an evolution of the D700 would work.
  • U1/U2 buttons like the D7000.  In a rare moment of agreement with Ken Rockwell (who can’t seem to figure out if he thinks megapixels are useful or not), how the heck was this left out of the D800???
  • USB 3.0.  Or even better, whatever is cheaper between in-camera USB 3.0 and throwing a USB 3.0 card reader for SD/CF in the box.
  • 6-8 Frames per second is fine.  You don’t have to improve the FPS with the grip, especially to keep it to a reasonable price.  $616 list (which still translates to $449 at B&H) is a shameful price when the grip for the D7000 is $219 and the grip for the D700 is $234 (at B&H, the list prices are $297 and $334, respectively).
  • Same video and audio as the D300s.  It will give folks a reason to buy the D800, and I use my Flipcam or smartphone for most of my video.  If you really want to create some product separation, take video off (along with a couple hundred bucks…).

I’m sure there are things I’ve missed.  I’d love to see simpler menus, a touch-screen and a few other things, but that is the main baseline.  As far as price, it would have to be more than the still-hypothetical D400 (which I’m guessing will be $1999) while not cratering your D800, though I think the build and other features I’ve described here are enough to keep the hard-core pros up there.  Let’s call it $2399 – about what the D700 was selling for new just before the terrible events in Tōhoku/Sendai or $2199 for a no-video version.

Here’s another thought for my friends at Nikon:  Create a “Build Your Perfect SLR” web-app in DX and FX editions, and even “what kind of shooter are you” categories.  Build in enough logic that users have to keep it real as a user in terms of manufacturability, sales price and family structure.  In other words, you have a “budget” to spend in the app for the design and features trade off against each other.  Put an “other” box in there somewhere for suggestions.  It would be a lot of fun, and my guess is you’ll learn a lot about what people really want.  And for Enthusiast Photographers like me and a lot of others, it isn’t a D4 or a D800 for full frame…

Readers:  Comments on your dream full frame or DX?  What features are you wishing for?

Nikon D800 Announces – Enthusiast Photographer

Nikon D800 - from the Nikon USA site

After much speculation and probably a delay of several months due to the disaster in Japan, the D800 finally announced overnight and is available for pre-order on B&H.  We didn’t get one, but actually two versions, a D800 and a D800e that eliminates the anti-aliasing filter in the camera.  Mainly, that means it delivers the ultimate RAW file – 36.3 megapixels of sensor information that is as untouched by any in-camera wizardry as anything delivered previously.  Folks demanding the absolute ultimate in detail will go this route for an extra $300 over the base price of $2999.95 for the standard version.

Engadget said they can’t tell the difference, and I believe them.  If you’re an Enthusiast Photographer like me, you probably won’t be able to, either.

So the question is whether anyone like me should really get one.  Off the top of my head and having read only the briefest of reviews, I think it is a quick “No” – I’m not tempted even one little bit.  In fact, I’d take a D700 over the D800 right now if offered the choice.

Why?  Easy – can you say “monstrogargantumous file size?”  I’ve seen multiple statements on the web, but 70MB+ is the smallest.  The strain that will put on my modest PC and storage is too much.  But there is an even better reason, at least for my style of shooting.

The large pixel count means ISO is limited to 6400 on the D800.  It is essentially a mini-D3x, to make a casual comparison.  It would lighten Trey Ratcliff’s load a bit as a D3x shooter, but what I’d really love to have would be a D3s in a D700/D800 body.  Give me that for the same $3K in an SD-card-based, 16MP-18MP package and I’m starting to look around the house for things to sell to afford one.

It will be interesting to see where Nikon goes from here in the full-frame space.  It seems like the D800 leaves a gap for another full-frame camera with lower resolution and higher ISO performance (the mini-D3s described above or similar).  Maybe they intend to keep the D700 around for a while, or maybe they have something really different in mind for the follow-on for the D300s – who knows?  Clearly they have some new thinking about their product line going on.  This wasn’t a linear evolution from the D700, which means the hypothetical-D400 could be a twist, too.  It will be very interesting to see what happens to prices of used D700 cameras as well.

So what did you think of the announcement?  Tempted?  What camera are you waiting to be announced?