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Nikon's logo. Click here to visit the Nikon website! Nikon rocks the DSLR world - Again (UPDATED)
(Thursday, August 23, 2007 - 16:36 EDT)

In a first for the company, Nikon invited over 400 members of the worldwide press to Tokyo today for the unveiling of its two new flagship DSLRs, the D3 and D300.

Editor in Chief Dave Etchells was in attendence, and came away with some general impressions of Nikon, some specific tidbits on the D3/D300, and some first-hand impressions of the new cameras. Read on for all the details...

A big event for a big announcement I've been to a lot of camera-world press events, but this undoubtedly qualifies as one of the largest. (Canon Expo 2005 was considerably larger, but that covered a lot of other products, including office machines and TV projectors, not just cameras.)

Here's a shot of about two-thirds of the hall, before most of the press had filed in. This was by far the biggest press event Nikon had ever done, but the occasion was well worth it: The D3 and D300 clearly set new benchmarks in SLR performance at their respective price points, and in many ways, raise the bar for the SLR market as a whole, regardless of price.

You know it's a camera company press event when ... they have a guy parade around beforehand as a stand-in for the models who'll later show off the products. Why? So all the photographers in attendance can check their exposure and white balance, of course! (I didn't envy him the task, I wouldn't have done as gracious a job of pretending to be a model.)

Once everyone had their white balance set, Nikon's President, CEO, and COO (and I think I'm overworked?) Michio Kariya welcomed the attendees briefly before turning podium over to Tetsuro Goto, VP of the Imaging Company for a review of the new products.

Before getting to the products though, I'll jump forward in my coverage to the presentations on Company Business Information by Makoto Kimura, President of the Imaging Company, and on Sales & Marketing strategy, given by Mr. Yasuyuki Okamoto, General Manager of Marketing at the headquarters of the Imaging Company. (Nikon is composed of several units, the Imaging Company which makes cameras and lenses is currently the largest of them.)

One of the more impressive slides was the one above, showing the huge growth of the Imaging Company over the last 8 years. In the past I've expressed my admiration for competitor Canon's business growth over the last 20 years, but the sales of Nikon's Imaging division are every bit as impressive (perhaps more so, but I've not seen the sales figures for just the camera / lens part of Canon's business). The chart above displays consolidated sales for the Imaging Company from 1999 to 2007, showing an incredible 3.7x increase in total sales over that time. Years ago, many pundits wondered if camera companies would ever make a go of the digital photography business, but the graph above is emphatic testimony to the fact that Nikon at least is doing very well.

In the not very distant past, Nikon lagged considerably behind Canon in DSLR sales. That was then, this is now: Thanks in large part to the huge success of their D40 and D40x models, Nikon has actually catapulted ahead, and now enjoys a slight lead over Canon in unit sales. The graph above shows numbers for the Japanese market, but numbers I've seen recently for the US market tell much the same story. (Nikon is slightly ahead in numbers, Canon is slightly ahead in total dollar volume in the US market.)

Nikon stated that their goal is to own 40% of the worldwide SLR market, but they've in fact already surpassed that point. The trick of course, will be to hold onto it, in the face of an onslaught by what Marketing Manager Okamoto referred to as "the household appliance companies." (A tongue-very-firmly-in-cheek reference to Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung.)

In his presentation Mr. Okamoto said that Nikon would be spending a lot more on getting their message out to the market in the coming months and years, something I personally see as a wise strategy for them. (Mr. Okamoto was the architect of the current press extravaganza. I can't imagine the cost it must represent, but relative to Nikon's overall business volume, it's probably pretty nominal, and it's certainly taking maximum advantage of a very newsworthy time in Nikon's history.)

One of the remarks I found most interesting though, I heard offline the night before, when a Nikon exec said that they'd "breathed a huge sigh of relief" when they saw Canon's announcements of this Monday. It's clear that Canon is feeling the pressure, I've never seen them announce a product as far in advance of availability as is the case with the 1Ds Mark III, and the advances in their line appear much more incremental than those just announced by Nikon. Canon's very clearly not a company to be counted out, and I suspect it'll only be a matter of time before the see-saw tips back in Canon's favor, but Nikon execs went so far as to say that they think they have at least two years before their sharpest competitor catches up.

Nikon's D3 digital SLR. Courtesy of Nikon, with modifications by Michael R. Tomkins. Click for a bigger picture!

The Big News of the Day: The D3, it's sensor, and other new technologies The D3 was the obvious big news of the show, not only for its full-frame capability (one area where Canon has had the field all to itself for some time now), but also for its incredible speed. - And high-ISO capability, but more on that later.

I won't go into a lot of details on the D3 or D300, for that see our evolving previews of the Nikon D3 and Nikon D300, which we'll be continuing to add to in the days and weeks to come. I did learn a couple of tidbits though, that I don't know have been reported elsewhere, so I'll mention them here.

We hadn't previously heard how many channels the D3's sensor read out in. The slide above shows that it's a 12-channel readout system, with a dedicated 14-bit A/D for each channel. While you still have to have a fast enough processor to digest all that data, having 12 channels clocking image data out simultaneously goes a long way toward explaining the D3's speed.

We have mentioned it elsewhere, but the D3's high-ISO capability does deserve mention again (and one more time below, as you'll see): Its top "normal" ISO rating is 6,400, and its HI-2 setting equates to an astounding ISO 25,600. This is thanks to its relatively huge pixels (in the current market anyway). I for one very heartily endorse Nikon's step away from the megapixel race, working instead for much higher usable ISO settings at very decent resolution levels.

Lateral CA correction Apart from the D3's high-ISO capabilities, I think one of the most significant developments in the D3 and D300 is their ability to correct for lateral chromatic aberration in-camera. What's particularly noteworthy here is that the correction happens entirely in-camera (for JPEGs, the same process can be applied to RAW files in the Capture NX software), without any need for pre-analysis of the lens characteristics. This means the improvement in image quality will apply to all your lenses, not just your Nikon glass, and not just recent lenses with a CPU in them, etc.

(Note that Nikon says the CA correction will "work best with Nikon lenses" and that they "can't be responsible for it working with third-party lenses," but that strikes me as a bit of marketing speak, as well as a bit of CYA, to prevent people from complaining to Nikon that the D3 or D300 don't make their Tamron lenses look better.)

This is really a first in single-lens reflex digital cameras, where you have to take account of the fact that a camera body can be used with numerous lenses of widely varying characteristics - even lenses that hadn't left the drawing board when the camera body landed on a store shelf. A camera with a fixed lens would seem to offer an easier opportunity to implement in-camera lens corrections, and yet even here relatively few manufacturers have ventured into in-camera lens corrections. (Certain of Panasonic's fixed lens digicams that include the company's Venus Engine II processor have the ability to correct for chromatic aberration, and we believe Fujifilm has also included some lens correction techniques in past fixed lens models.)

For a single lens reflex digicam though, this is cutting edge - I expect to see other DSLR manufacturers mirror this as their technology catches up to Nikon's. It's an obvious use of the computer built into the camera, it "just" requires a very fast image processor, and the cleverness to work out the algorithms. Expect to see this feature spread across the industry in the years to come.

There's a very interesting side note here too: During the technical Q&A, a Nikon exec alluded to improvements in sharpness, as well as in CA. I doubt the Expeed image processor is quite clever enough to apply what's known as a blind deconvolution to the image data to come up with an optimal sharpness enhancement, but it's likely that the CA information it extracts and corrects for will also improve sharpness quite noticeably as well. Believe me, we can't wait to get our hands on one of these units and run some before / after tests with DxO analyzer to see how the blur plots compare. (See our sister site SLRgear.com to see the sorts of lens sharpness tests I'm talking about.)

The Live View capability of the D3 and D300 is also big news for Nikon. Beating Panasonic's Lumix DMC-L10 by just a week, Nikon's new DSLRs are the first to be announced with the ability to autofocus with the mirror raised, using the contrast-detection AF that's common to all consumer digicams. This is called "Tripod mode" in the menu system, but I personally hadn't really taken that designation to heart prior to the presentation. Nikon chose the name for a reason though, and it means what it says - you can't have moving subjects, or hand-hold the camera. Readout is apparently too slow for the autofocus system to deal with motion of either kind.

Nikon's been playing with "D-Lighting" for some time now, as a way of letting cameras respond to scenes more as our eyes do. Watching it evolve over the last couple of years, its gone from a great theory of marginal practical use to a pretty useful feature. With the D3 / D300, it now takes another step into practicality, thanks to the power of the Expeed processor. An option on both cameras lets you automatically apply D-Lighting to all JPEG images. (RAWs are not affected, a very proper expression of the philosophy of RAW image files.) The slide above suffers greatly from too many passes through digitization and re-rendering, but it gives you an idea of what the technology can do. (The originals on the screen were quite compelling.)

A brief in-person evaluation: I spent a little time playing with the new cameras, and have three observations to share with our readers:

  1. The D3's high ISO is really impressive I'll remain at least somewhat skeptical until we can get a D3 back in the lab and test it under controlled conditions, but Nikon showed some incredibly impressive prints at the event. They had enlargements that must have been 30x45 inches or more in size, comparing identical shots taken with the D3 and Canon EOS-1D Mark III at ISO 3,200 and 6,400.

    After the disappointment of the D2H, I have to say I was taking Nikon's claims of low noise at high ISOs with a rather large grain of salt. When I saw the aforementioned prints though, I was literally flabbergasted. The D3 didn't just surpass the 1D Mark III, it far surpassed it. Well, that may be a little strong; the Mark III is a fantastic camera, but the difference between its images and those from the D3 was anything but subtle. As I say, I'll remain a skeptic until we can test a production sample of the D3 ourselves, but if the images shown had any basis in reality (and Nikon would be foolish to have doctored them in any way), it looks like there's a new leader in the high-ISO / low-noise derby, and it's the D3.

  2. The optical viewfinder is big, bright, and beautiful If you just look at the specs, you might think that the D3's optical VF is a step backward from that of the D2Xs. After all, the D3's viewfinder is rated at only 0.7x magnification factor, vs. the 0.86x of earlier models. You have to stop and take into account the fact that that's 0.7x relative to a full-frame sensor though, so the net effect is something like a 70% bigger view of the world (if my jet-lag-addled brain is doing the math right). However the numbers come out, the D3's viewfinder is big and beautiful, something that you won't get by reading the specs.

  3. The new rear-panel LCD is stunning. Nikon's marketing arm has come up with the phrase "Stunning Nikon." I don't know, "stunning" is a pretty strong word. I'd have no problem applying it to the D3 / D300's rear-panel LCD screen though. It's amazing how big a difference the combination of a 3" diagonal size and 920,000 "pixels" makes. Like all LCD specs, that should properly be called "dots" rather than pixels, that's the total number of red, green, and blue points on the screen. Most digicam LCDs have 230,000 dots or less, equating to a 320x240 pixel display. With 920,000 dots the D3 and D300 share a resolution of 640x480 pixels. Images just leap off the screen at you, and the 170 degree viewing angle makes it easy for others to see them as well. (Or for you to see, if you're holding the camera over your head or down close to the ground, in Live View mode.) Stunning.

New Lenses New cameras weren't the only new hardware on offer, as Nikon also announced a whole range of new lenses - a 14-24mm f/2.8, a 24-70mm f/2.8, and VR versions of the 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4. All have been designed with high-resolution full-frame sensors in mind.

What particularly caught my attention was that the 14-24mm f/2.8 was very overtly compared to prime lenses. A Nikon exec said that it has better optical quality than any prime Nikon makes that falls within its range. (!) That's a claim we'll definitely want to check out, but it continues a general trend in recent years of high-quality zooms getting closer and closer to the performance of primes. (Of course, you have to expect that the same lens design prowess will be applied to primes as well at some point, but for now it looks like the gap is closing in ways useful to photographers.)

DX lenses aren't going away! This came in answer to a question during the technical Q&A session. A journalist inquired about the fate of DX lenses, now that Nikon has its toe in the full-frame arena. The reply (referring back to the slide above from the main presentation) was that Nikon feels that both DX and FX products make sense for different groups of users, and so will continue to very aggressivel develop products in both realms. They very explicitly said that new DX lenses continue (and will continue) to be under development. DX and FX cameras and lenses will continue to complement each other "for a very long time."

I'll close with the slide above, comparing body-based with lens-based image stabilization. Nikon (along with Canon) obviously have a particular axe to grind here, and the graph admittedly doesn't say at what focal length the numbers were collected, but all that said, it's a telling graphic. Leaving aside the competitive positioning though, what I found especially interesting about this graph was the fact that Nikon's internal measurements show their VRII technology to deliver a 4.5 stop improvement in shake reduction, but they've chosen to be more conservative in their advertising claims. I can certainly attest that the 18-200mm I've been using on this trip (the same model referenced in the graphic above) has been a very stable shooting platform.

Conclusion People who know me know how much I begrudge the time required by press junkets of this sort. Despite that though, I value them for the exposure they can provide to senior technical staff, engineers and designers. Tonight at dinner, I had the opportunity to speak with the gentleman who developed Nikon's matrix metering (Mr. Tetsuro Goto), as well as the gentleman who's responsible for the design of the 1,005 element RGB sensor and its implementation in the D3 and D300 (Mr. Tadao Kai). They were extraordinarily illuminating conversations, some of which I'll be sharing in our D3 / D300 coverage in the weeks to come. My thanks to Nikon USA for making this trip possible, and to Nikon Corporate for their unusually gracious and considerate hosting - and congratulations to Nikon on their newfound ascendancy in the SLR marketplace.

UPDATED 2007-09-04 15:29ET: Information relating to contrast-detection AF and in-camera lens correction has been clarified and extended, as the result of an interesting email discussion with IR reader Erik Ekholm. Thanks, Erik!

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